March 8, 2023
When I was in college, I had a colleague who was several years older, widely read, and was ready to provide an authoritative answer to any question at the drop of a hat. His answers were literate, often inspired, sometimes witty, and inevitably and at times wildly inaccurate. My friend was not widely published, so it was hard to pin him down as having said something wrong, nor was he ever very clear on where his ideas or even his quotes came from. But he was always up to the task of providing an answer when asked.
Now having such a friend posed a challenge. It was easy to ask him questions, but was it worth doing the work to discern if his answers were correct? Should I just cite him and attribute what he said to his as-yet-unpublished manuscript? Or would it have been better to encourage him to put it in his blog so that I could cite it explicitly by putting down the date it was viewed?
Of course, citations play several roles in writing. They provide attribution of origin for thoughts, insulating one from accusations of plagiarism. They also provide support for arguments by an appeal to authority. That someone said it provides evidence that it must be true, or at least that it is believed to be accurate by someone.
On the other hand, if one develops a reputation for being someone who cites unreliable sources, one loses any cogency for one’s arguments and is instead reduced to being just another unreliable source. For this reason, although my friend was entertaining to converse with, and occasionally provided inspiration for what I wrote, he was never someone who merited citation.
By now you will have seen the obvious parallels between my unreliable friend and ChatGPT. While both are enjoyable to put questions to, and while both can inspire further action, neither is a source to stake your reputation on.
When I saw in the Guardian the other day that the International Baccalaureate (IB) had decided to allow students to cite ChatGPT, I decided to investigate the wisdom of this decision. Rather than put the question to my friend of whether the IB should allow students to cite ChatGPT as a source, I decided to put the question to ChatGPT itself. Curiously, ChatGPT seemed to take a more modest, reasonable approach than I…