Thursday, January 24, 2013

Five reasons to check the footnotes

I was flipping through the Volokh Conspiracy yesterday when I stumbled upon an article that revisited an incident involving their contributor Jim Lindgren.  

Apparently about a decade ago, there was a book out that claimed that very few people in early America owned guns, and therefore the 2nd amendment couldn't possibly have meant that individuals should have had the right to own personal firearms.  Upon closer examination however, most of his footnotes and sources were fabricated.  Lindgren was a co-author on the article that took the book author down and completely turned his point against him....all because they actually bothered to track down the small print.

Interesting stuff.

If you really disagree with something, it's always worth checking out the footnotes for a few things:
  1. That the source cited actually exists
  2. That the source cited backs up the part of the sentence that really needs backing up.
  3. That the source cited actually backs up the thing it's being used to back up, and doesn't just reference it obliquely.
  4. That the source cited states the point as strongly as the article authors state it.
  5. That the reference isn't so old as to be outdated, replaced, or from a paper that has been unreplicatable.
I'm not saying everything you disagree with can be undone using these, but it's pretty amazing how many citations don't pass these 5 tests.  


  1. I used to make up footnotes in college. It's pretty easy, actually. I eventually decided whole cloth was too risky #1; #5 would take as much work as a good footnote; #2-4 can be done pretty easily if you can only discover what graders will think is a good source but they probably don't have one of their own. #3 is stellar in that regard.

    Somewhere in my junior year, probably about the time I started dating Tracy, my standards raised and I started actually reading the material. It made writing papers so much easier that my writing skills atrophied.

    1. My advisor in college had a puzzling story he used to tell about a student who forged all of his test booklets to give himself different grades (mostly in verses of his actual grades). He had figured out how to mimic the blue book, the profs writing and style, how to get the exact number of extra points he needed etc. he had apparently done this for quite a few classes too. The one thing that bugged my prof at the end of it all? Why wouldn't that kid just have invested the same amount of time in to studying? He could have just passed the first time around!

    2. That's a good engineering prof right there btw, academic dishonesty? Meh. Inefficiency? What the heck is wrong with you?????

  2. One of the things about writing court briefs or appellate briefs is that you have to list the case you are relying on together with the legal compilation it is listed in. The down side is that what is a good source in NH may not be a good source in MA, i.e. the prior legal interpretations may differ. We go outside of our jurisdiction if we think it is new legal ground. When I first started practicing, it was a lot of work, but now with the internet, it is very easy to check a case and see what it says. It doesn't stop lawyers from skating on the edge of saying it means something that it doesn't, but it is easy to verify.