Checking references

Reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God is an irritating experience, and not just in the more obvious or predictable way. There is also the matter of her pretense of scholarship, which upon inspection turns out to be rather thin. For example:

Chapter 11, ‘Unknowing,’ begins with three pages of factual statements with names, dates, and other particulars, beginning with the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900 and what David Hilbert said there, what it implied about confidence in scientific progress, what Virginia Woolf said, what Picasso and James Joyce were up to, moving on to the First World War, the depression, and the war after that, with a pause halfway through to sum up: “It was now difficult to feel sanguine about the limitless progress of civilization. Modern secular ideologies were proving to be as lethal as any religious bigotry.”

Then we move to “Modern science had been founded on the belief that it was possible to achieve objective certainty.” We get a brisk mention of Hume and Kant, then James Clark Maxwell, then Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, then Becquerel and Planck, and at last we arrive where we knew we were heading, at Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg. “Niels Bohr (1885-1962) and Werner Heisenberg (1901-76) developed quantum mechanics, an achievement that contradicted nearly every major postulate of Newtonian physics.”

That, thank god, is the end of the third paragraph. We’ve taken in a lot and are panting slightly. One more paragraph to go, to complete this magisterial survey. “So much for the traditional assumption that knowledge would proceed incrementally…In the bewildering universe of quantum mechanics” and so on, you can write it in your sleep. But what’s interesting about all this is that there is not one reference for any of it. Not one. It’s all poured out of Karen Armstrong’s teeming mind, apparently, so thoroughly assimilated and absorbed that there is no need to reference it – it is just her Knowledge. We do not get a reference until the end of the fourth paragraph of the chapter, three pages in (p. 264), for a direct quotation from Einstein. And what is the reference? Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 356.

In other words, most of that three pages is just a summary of part of a secondary book, a popular history of ideas, but it’s not presented that way. She nowhere says ‘to summarize pages 355-6 from Richard Tarnas’s best-selling book’ or similar – she just spouts it all as if it were an overflow of her vast erudition. That’s not illegal, but it’s not best practice, either. (Apart from anything else, it doesn’t really give Tarnas adequate credit, because it looks as if the reference is just to the direct quotation.) It’s not best practice, and in someone like Armstrong, it’s also deeply irritating. Why? Because she does convey an air of authority and wisdom and deep learning. There’s that ridiculously boastful pile of books on the front cover, for one thing! There’s the third sentence on the first page, in the Introduction, for another: “‘That book was really hard!’ readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof. ‘Of course it was!’ I want to reply. ‘It was about God.'” A barely-veiled boast – I Write Hard Books. Well this book at least is not hard, it’s pseudo-hard, and when you look closely at it it also turns out to be pseudo-erudite and inadequately referenced.

The first three pages aren’t an aberration, either; she goes on the same way. Page 266 gets really down to it with Heisenberg and that other fella. “In 1931, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel (1906-78) devised a theorem to show that any formal logical or mathematical system must contain propositions that are not verifiable within that system; there would always be propositions that could be proved or disproved only by input from outside. This completely undercut the traditional assumption of systematic decidability.” Then there’s what John Dewey (dates provided, as always) said in his Gifford Lectures in 1929, then there’s commentary about our limited minds, all reference-free, then there’s a quotation from “the American physicist Percy Bridgman” (dates provided again), including (this must have thrilled Armstrong) “We are confronted with something truly ineffable.” The direct quotation, at last, gets a reference: “Quoted in Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind“. Another secondary source, you see – and one with an apparent agenda. This is thin, second-hand, warmed-over, paraphrased stuff, but it’s not presented that way. Armstrong has a reputation as a scholar, but it’s not always earned.

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