Saturday, January 21, 2012

Links, citations and the pro-life story

I recently made the mistake of trying to slap down a troll.  You know the type I’m talking about — the one who tries to pass off insults as arguments, then puts on the air of superior reasoning when called on it.  Let’s call him “Gorbag”.  Granted, it’s the name of an orc, not a troll, but it’ll do.

In one of his patronizing replies to my demand that he apologize for his snot-fest, Gorbag sniffed, “If [third person] wants to use actual quantifiable claims to back up her stories, then she needs to back up her numbers: ‘Porn addictions are now implicated in over 50% of divorces.’ — that’s a lot of implications, so a source should be cited, otherwise it comes across as a fabricated truth — something that religious types like to toss around all the time as ‘fact’.”

Okay, granted that Gorbag is guilty of a gross generalization that he himself won’t back up.  As I’ve said before, hypocrisy is by no means limited to us “religious types”.  I remember reading a claim in an extract from the late Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great that “most Christians are hypocrites”, and thinking, “Gee, for a guy who worships the Golden Calf of Scientism, he has a distinct aversion to backing up such a claim with scientific data.”

However, once you clear away the arrogance and anti-Christian bigotry, Gorbag does have a point.  Many people who write blogs don’t come from backgrounds where sourcing one’s claims is necessary.  And while many if not most writers are good about linking back to story sources, backing data — not so much.  In debate terms, we’re the ones indicting the present system; therefore, we bear the burden of proof.

Let’s put the matter a different way: Gorbag, in essence, accuses us of pulling numbers out of thin air to make our cases against the “culture of death”.  Presenting the numbers by themselves, without links or endnotes, contributes to that appearance.  Citing or linking other people’s blogs — especially when those other people don’t cite their sources — can be written off as just us passing around subcultural myths and urban legends.  Above all, it doesn’t make full use of the Internet’s power to share information.

We have the facts on our side.  To make our case, it’s essential we show that we’re not making this stuff up.

For instance: In 2007, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer put combined estrogen-progestogen contraceptives — the Pill — on its list of Group 1 carcinogens (carcinogenic to humans).  To quote the evaluation: “There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of combined oral estrogen–progestogen contraceptives.  This evaluation was made on the basis of increased risks for cancer of the breast among current and recent users only, for cancer of the cervix and for cancer of the liver in populations that are at low risk for hepatitis B viral infection [italics in original; bold font mine].”

Okay, what’s my source?  Well, my original source was hearing Teresa Tomeo talk about it on Catholic Connection on EWTN.  And if I were just trading emails with a friend on the matter, that might be enough.  But if I were trying to convince William Saletan that contraceptives are a bad idea all around, simply saying, “Well, Teresa Tomeo says that the WHO put it on a list of carcinogens!” … well, as they say down here in Texas, that dog won’t hunt.

So the obvious first choice is to link the summary page of the monograph inline.  There’s just one problem with that: links degrade and break over time.  In fact, when I went to get the IARC monograph, I first tried accessing it from Dr. Gerard Nadal’s site Coming Home, but his link led to an “oops page” on the IARC site.  Nevertheless, for most purposes, links will suffice … you just have to check on them every so often.

However, this won’t work for sources you only have in printed format, including Kindle books and PDFs.  Moreover, if you’re citing scientific sources, you often can only access the abstract online… unless you’re willing pay a lot of money for full access.  So you may want or be forced to use inline citations.

Inline citations are simple, as they don’t require any additional HTML coding. The citation itself is just a matter of putting the authors’ name, the publication year and page number in parentheses in your sentence: “There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of combined oral estrogen–progestogen contraceptives” (IARC 2007, p. 175).  At the bottom of your post, you then list your sources in APA format:

IARC (2007). Combined Estrogen-Progestogen Contraceptives and Combined Estrogen-Progestogen Menopausal Therapy. Retrieved January 21, 2012 from International Agency for Research on Cancer:


IARC (2007). Combined Estrogen-Progestogen Contraceptives and Combined Estrogen-Progestogen Menopausal Therapy. In IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, Vol. 91. Lyons: International Agency for Research on Cancer.

A lot of work?  Most of the work is in doing what we should be doing in the first place — namely, research.  It’s actually easier to put the citations in your post than it is to find the numbers to begin with, or to write something interesting and original about them!

Whenever possible, get the facts straight from the source.  While there are plenty of people who deliberately misrepresent data — including some of the scientists who produce it — neither foolishness nor knavery is required to do so unintentionally.  Make sure the study says what it’s supposed to say (or what other people think it says) before you quote it to bolster your argument.

Of course, citing our sources isn’t always going to shut the Gorbags of the Internet up.  But the Gorbags carry the burden of rejoinder: once the evidence against the status quo is present it, they must find countervailing evidence to rebut.  And that is getting harder to find.