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Sunday, October 10, 2004

The blogging mindset and the compulsion to "show your work"

I honestly don't remember whether it was in grade school, junior high, or high school that I first had math teachers who insisted that my written homework assignments, in addition to reporting the problems' answers, also "show my work" — the calculations I'd done in support of the solution I was offering up.  Most students chafe at such requirements, and I suppose that I did as well.  I certainly took no perverse joy in the English composition assignments that were intended to familiarize me with writing footnotes and bibliographies either.

Law school and, in particular, law review, and then a subsequent judicial clerkship, however, added heavy paving stones to the neural pathways that now affect all my writing.  For better or worse (or actually, for better sometimes and other times for worse), "showing my work" — in the form of footnotes and legal citations — became the rule for my professional writing, rather than the exception.  The best send-up of this widespread compulsion is a fabulous student-written note from the Penn Law Review in 1975 entitled "The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule," which famously begins with its first word — "The" — footnoted and defined.

The compulsion carries over quite naturally to my blogging.  Writing the paragraph just above, for example, I agonized briefly over whether to use standard "Bluebook" citation form to reference that article, and I lamented the fact that (as best I can determine) there's no online version of it available.  The latter fact particularly frustrates my law-blogging instincts — "Argh! I can't hyperlink this!"

The instinct to "show your work" — to provide footnotes, references, hyperlinks, bibliographies, exhibit volumes, etc. — is bound up closely with the craving for both accuracy and credibility.  An illustrative anecdote:

The Fifth Circuit judge for whom I had the privilege of working was then in only her second year on the bench, and she had come from a nontraditional practice specialty (corporate securities regulation).  She hadn't dealt at all, since her own law school days, with many of the subjects (for example, criminal law) on which she and our chambers were now required to write appellate opinions on a daily basis.  She was therefore quite insistent that in drafting proposed opinions for her review and revision, her clerks "show their work" with promiscuous citations to relevant statutes, judicial opinions, and the record from the district court.  And woe be it to the clerk in our chambers who ever assumed that he could rely upon the parties' briefs to have identified all of the relevant legal precedents!  We used the parties' briefs as a starting point for our own research, and our judge expected us to be highly skeptical not only of the parties' contentions, but also of their research and briefing.  Her insistence that we do independent research, and always show our work, was an important quality-control method, and it also probably reassured her more experienced colleagues on the bench that the written opinions in which they were being asked to concur were sound. 

By contrast, one of my law school classmates who worked for a long-time Fifth Circuit judge described to me his boss' frequent and amazing practice of dictating even very important written opinions from off the top of his head — citing as precedent mostly his own prior decisions from years past.  My classmate's job often consisted of simply locating the volume and page citations from those past opinions to polish up his chambers' output for publication.

Recently, a friend suggested that I write an op-ed for the newspaper where he works.  I was flattered by the suggestion, and ended up begging off because of other commitments.  But I said to him, only half jokingly, that I didn't know whether I'd be able to write an op-ed without hyperlinks.  I suppose that what I really meant was, "I'm not sure anyone would take me seriously unless I've shown my work."  I almost certainly let my compulsion get out of control in lots of my blogging.  For instance, in writing a brief review of a brief book review last night, when I asserted that I knew something about book reviews, I included a good half dozen hyperlinks to back up that assertion, including one to the law review masthead from 24 years ago to prove that I've been a book review editor.  How incredibly anal that was!  But the odd fact is, I'm uncomfortable writing a blog post — like this one — without hyperlinks.

Posted by Beldar at 11:04 PM in Law (2006 & earlier), Mainstream Media, Trial Lawyer War Stories, Weblogs | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to The blogging mindset and the compulsion to "show your work" and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» Show your work! from dislogue

Tracked on Oct 11, 2004 9:52:10 AM

» Condemnation by Proxy from Pajama Pundits

Tracked on Oct 17, 2004 2:02:31 PM


(1) Edward Ziek made the following comment | Oct 10, 2004 11:57:07 PM | Permalink

Great piece, where's the link to "The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule"?

(2) Ben Zeen (a pseudonym) made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 4:39:07 AM | Permalink


The compulsion carries over quite naturally to my blogging. Writing the paragraph just above, for example, I agonized briefly over whether to use standard "Bluebook" citation form to reference that article, and I lamented the fact that (as best I can determine) there's no online version of it available. The latter fact particularly frustrates my law-blogging instincts — "Argh! I can't hyperlink this!"
(emphasis added)

(3) Mark L made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 6:34:11 AM | Permalink

Ah . . .

What *type* of hyperlinks could you logically put in a post like this?

Don't get me wrong. One of the things I like about your blog are the links and the backup. But in a posting like this I cannot see where links would have improved it. That is the bottom line for links, isn't it? That when added they improve the posting.

As Kipling says "There's measure in all things made." (If you want, I can come back and hyperlink the poem that line comes from -- just to make you comfortable.) Anyhow -- you are forgiven when no forgiveness is needed.

(4) Allan Yackey made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 7:44:26 AM | Permalink

I try to explain conservative BLOGS to people who have not yet checked in as: Research papers where you don't need to go to a library to read the book or paper behind a footnote.

The result of this in my view is:

1. Faster and more forceful communication of ideas and arguments

2. Any unsupported argument in opposition is weaker. In particular, typical liberal arguments that are based on name calling and zingers, sticks out like a sore thumb. (It's hard to footnote an obscenity)

(5) Palooka made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 8:47:59 AM | Permalink

This is what happens to one after law school? Maybe I should rethink sending in those apps ;)

(6) Dan S made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 9:52:23 AM | Permalink

I was going to comment here, but instead went long:

Show Your Work

(7) Pavel made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 11:24:51 AM | Permalink

Ha! Great post. It doesn't stop after L.Rev., either: no brief worth its salt will have a single significant factual contention without some citation to the record, lest it be called "naked" or "bald".

I remember reading somewhere about the third branch of due process (after substantive and procedural): technical due process - the Bluebook mindset.

It's a lovely and very important discipline - but it gets in the way of freerange thinking, sometimes.

(8) holdfast made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 1:25:10 PM | Permalink

Pavel - you are so right - there's nothing better than dismissing an opponent with a pithy "that's not not a fact in evidence - it's just a bald assertion."

(9) hcq made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 2:36:40 PM | Permalink

I've just been working over another subsection for my own website, trying to figure out how to cover a complex and sometimes controversial subject in a handful of paragraphs
and no hyperlinks. I.just.can't.do.it.

I was never a lawyer, but I worked for some of the best, and I guess they trained me too well. Maybe I overstate my case; maybe all those citations will chase away some potential readers. But somehow I doubt the ones genuinely interested in the subject would accept anything less.

(10) Cateagle made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 2:36:58 PM | Permalink

I can say exactly where I was first “encouraged” to do this; the Math teacher I had for Algebra I and Geometry, bless her soul. Since then, I’ve come to realize just how useful this is for catching mistakes if, in math, you also show your units. Methinks the folks working on Mars Observer could’ve used such a simple aid.

When I’m reading a write-up on a subject I’m not highly conversant with, I greatly appreciate writers who “show there work” to allow me to dig further if so inclined.

(11) PDN made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 3:17:48 PM | Permalink

I am not a lawyer. However, having done major research in other disciplines, there doesn't seem to be much difference between law research and other types of research ---- you always cite your source, you always put in footnotes or endnotes, and the more the better.

I don't think you are anal to put hyperlinks within your blog. We are a self-educating audience. Reading your blog is like choosing to attend a symposium or a seminar (or listening to a debate). We need your sources to strengthen your arguement and to provide a heuristic bibliography (so to speak). If we were your friends or collegues, then you would just need to have easy access to your sources when asked.

I personally need the attention to detail on your blog. For those of us with time consuming jobs that don't allow us to research primary sources ourselves, your hyperlinks are necessary and greatly appreciated.

Thank You,


(12) Eric Christophersen made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 4:56:10 PM | Permalink


Good for you. While you're in anal unwind, would you consider abandoning "biased" as a description of the Dan Rathers, Mary Mapeses, Mark Halperins and their respective MSM employers of the world and cut to the chase? The word you're looking for is what should be familiar enough. It's a noun: "advocate."

(13) DWAYNE made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 5:33:56 PM | Permalink

A favorite related anecdote, spotted years ago on a restroom wall of a restaurant wall near a college: E=MC2 [sorry, can't superscript) with note nearby "Very nice Albert, but next time show your work."

(14) TheDude made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 6:19:01 PM | Permalink

Great topic. I notice, as was noted by Allan Yackey, that footnotes or references of any kind are quite absent from liberal writings. Ann Coulter, whom many liberals condescendingly denounce as a "right wing nut" has tons of references in her books and is constantly giving instructions on where to look up the facts she may have just cited for any nonbeliever out there. This is a great way to win arguments with people who argue using lame platitudes (Hillary thinking about "the children") or name calling (Danny Glover calling W a racist). VP Cheney proved it with his debate v. John Edwards. Facts are the only known antidote for tired, hateful rhetoric.

(15) Old Patriot made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 9:15:12 PM | Permalink

Anybody can throw in a bunch of fluff - in a newspaper article, in a letter to the editor, in a blog article, or in a comment. By itself, it holds little credence. If you list references, if you "show your work", your opponents are forced upon the defensive. Not only do they have to prove what YOU wrote is wrong, but that the information in your references is wrong. That'a a lot harder mission to accomplish, and most hit-and-run artists will move to easier pickings. The best blog pieces are those that do list their work, their source information, and link to back-up material. I learned that from the military - woe be it to the NCO or junior officer who couldn't answer the question, "Where'd you get that?", especially if it came from a general officer!

(16) Old Grouch made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 1:26:27 PM | Permalink

Not only that, but it quickly short-circuits the "but you didn't pay any attention to X" argument if you already have X linked.

(17) T Andrews made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 10:19:01 PM | Permalink

I know this isn't on point, but just a "heads up" about the blogs - today I viewed an article by "Media Is a Plural," the blog for Rory O'Connor, a producer for PBS, etc., concerning the Sinclair proposal to release the anti-Kerry broadcast. The article in question concerned the upcoming video about Kerry and his anti-military stance, and was entirely about the background of all involved, from Sinclair to his producers and backers, but was completely silent as to the content of the video, and the propriety of calling for Kerry to account for his behavior.

I submitted a comment, asking why the Rather piece on the ANG was investigated for validity of content, with only an incidental concern for the motives of Rather in presenting the piece, while the Sinclair (and for that matter, the SwiftVets contentions) were challenged entirely on the veracity of the "messenger" with little concern for content.

I anxiously watched for a scholarly retort, and found that I was no longer able to access the blog! I have tried to access roryoconner.org/blog/ both directly and through a variety of alternatives, with no luck. So much for open discourse.

My opening statement was apparently so devastating, that I have obtained a directed verdict without having to present any evidence!

(18) TheDude made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 10:52:22 PM | Permalink

The only possible response when you argue with emotion instead of reason. I expect nothing less from these open-minded believers of free speech. Those content to be spoon-fed their opinions by parents still unable to admit they were proven wrong forty years ago. It's almost easier to sit back and let them make our points for us. But hey, that's just the lazy, bigoted fascist in me!

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