Finding Sources vs. Using Sources
Imagine a psychologist who believes that children raised by single parents are more aggressive and likely to abuse their own children later in life. She has noticed a trend in her patients that leads her to this belief, but she doesn’t have the evidence to draw a compelling conclusion.
Listening to the Evidence
Once she has formulated her thesis, she starts to listen to her patients differently. She’s working on a paper for a psychology journal, so therapy sessions become partly about gathering evidence for her theory.
She pays particular attention to patients of single parents and guides their sessions into conversations about their violent feelings, their attitudes toward their own children. When they speak of frustration, she hears that they’re angry. When they speak of venting those frustrations, she envisions them punching through walls. When they say they leave the house in such situations, she imagines it’s to avoid hurting the children.
Hunting for Proof, We Find “Proof”
She’s on a hunt for evidence that proves her thesis. What her patients with two parents say about their violent personalities she dismisses as irrelevant. What they tell her about hurting their children she attributes to factors other than their parentage.
She wants her evidence neat; she wants it free of conflict; she’s looking for a slam-dunk. Consequently, what she hears sounds like proof, and evidence to the contrary she considers noise.
Why Publish Someone Else’s Truth?
We read and study to discover the truth, not to prove that our preconceptions were valid all along. When we forget this essential point, we start reading defensively, hoping to avoid unpleasant counterarguments that upset our worldview. Reading openly and honestly, remaining receptive to the best ideas and evidence we can find, we gain knowledge and perspective.
Finding the “perfect source that proves our argument!” is a catastrophe. It means we’ve arrived too late at someone else’s truth and have nothing left to say except: “Look! Right there! That’s what I’ve been thinking!”
Just as bad as finding the perfect source is starting with the perfect source that proves our point and provides all the necessary evidence before we even begin my work. What is left for us to do when the definitive article has already been written? Nothing but to share it.
Look for Evidence, Not Conclusions
We write to learn, not to prove. The research part of the writing process is our chance to find better, not to locate good enough. If our first five sources say the same thing five ways—or worse, say it the same way!—we have to start asking ourselves: where are we in this process?, what’s our contribution to the conversation?, why does this chorus need one more voice echoing the others?
Failing to find the source that “proves” our thesis is the real blessing. Without an expert to follow, we are free to become the expert. Instead of giving the credit for our ideas to acknowledged authorities, we get to draw our own conclusions, based on the best evidence we’ve found, and make a unique contribution to the debate. Wrong is as good as right; both are better than safe.
Username, whose questions are better than most people’s answers, told me she had found plenty of sources to demonstrate that white patients get brand-name Prozac disproportionately more often than patients of color, who more often get generic drugs, but that she hadn’t yet tracked down a source to explain WHY the disparity occurs (or HOW the mechanics of health-care delivery produce such a result). I say that makes her very lucky. She is free to draw her own conclusions and challenge her readers to dispute them with their own evidence. The most successful papers take a good look at a perplexing problem and offer a solution that requires further study. They’re part of a conversation, not an echo of the last word.