Look the Source Up, Read for Yourself

Look the Source Up, Read for Yourself October 29, 2020

The job of serpents is to question what has been said, that of Wisdom to clarify what is true. When asked a question, Mom often suggested: “Look it up.”

Why? Maybe, just maybe, what seemed true was not.

Make sure to look up what is claimed. We can create documents easily, so lies, or shoddy intellectual work, can travel quickly. One hour, right now, spent reading primary sources is more valuable than one hour reading social media. The books in my office cannot be changed, manipulated, or explained away.

If an article is important and makes big claims about the world, then check out the footnotes and the bibliography. If the piece is more informal (like this one!) look for places where the author cites a writer and see if he is reading that author charitably, carefully, and accurately. Read a few of the sources for yourself. Never trust someone who invents quotations or radically misreads a study or text to the point where the misdirection must be intentional. 

I once read a book by a very famous person (or the ghostwriter of a very famous person) and realized that the Plato quotation seemed off. Read enough Plato and a person gets the “sound” of Plato and this did not have Plato’s sound. The quote was spurious and so were a few others in the book. As a high school student, I went to an event that got national coverage. I read the stories in the Post. They were nothing like the event I attended. They presented an essentially political event, the students I was with were there to pray. We were cheerful, diverse, but the story made us all seem angry.

This has given me a simple rule: if someone makes a claim based on resources or quotations from a book or paper, then look up that book or paper. Read. Think. Do this work at least once.

See if the source matches what the person says. If you read that the “Dark Ages” were obsessed with “demons” using Dante’s Inferno as a source, then look at the Inferno. If you do, then you will discover this work is one-third of a master work called The Comedy. Hell and devils make up about one-third of the total and devils are not as prominent as politicians and priests in Hell! That was sensible of Dante, since it matches human experience. We know that there is evil out there, but the good, truth, and beauty are more fundamental. Look at the heavens, enjoy the stars!

When one looked up what the critic said, compared that rant to the originals, then one saw that the critic was clueless. The other two sections of Dante  (Purgatory and Paradise) have nothing to do with devils and a great deal to do with love. . .love that moves the heavens and the furthest stars. Meanwhile, Dante’s Satan is immobile, made impotent by his self-pity and sin. Checking the primary sources’ cites showed the critic wrong.*

Check the sources and reserve judgment on anyone who claims to have read what they seem not to have read! Recently one adult son checked the citation used in an article by reading the original article. While he was not reading in his field, he worked hard and grasped the general point. As a result, he was able to judge the use that was being made of the research. What did the study prove? If a scientific study shows that x leads to y, then the study does not show what we should do about y.  Assume “y” is. Assume you (as a person) find “y” awful. What is best for our politics? What is just?.

No scientific study can tell us what we ought to do, only what we are doing or not doing.

You cannot get an “ought” from what is! All this could seem quite depressing until we realize that there was never a time when what we were taught by “science” was perfect. At our lower level, we missed the nuance, the disagreement, the hard work of doing research. If a bit research is critical, read the paper for yourself! 

There was, almost surely, never a time when we could just trust what we were being spoon-fed. There is not some honest Golden Age to which we can return and hide from lies. Instead, let’s admit that the “winners” of any civilization often lie to us, the “losers” to placate us. Having been oft used, we should be hesitant at being ever useful idiots again.

Look it up!


*The critic is also a soul created in the Image of God and so we must never dismiss the hope for his salvation!


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