The deceptive nature of note-taking

In any note-taking system, having lots of categories (or “fields” in database parlance) in which to record information about sources (aka meta-data) is important. Really important. For historians, simple tags aren’t enough, nor is relying on the full-text alone, nor is a single hierarchical organizational scheme. What on earth do I mean? Keep reading.

Let’s say I’m looking at the question of how early moderns perceived military deception, trickery, subterfuge, lying, and the like. You find a bunch of germane sources and take notes on their discussions of the subject. To simplify matters, we’ll stay theoretical, focusing on how contemporaries expressed their preferences for either deception or straightforwardness in war, rather than using other measures (the frequency of their actual reliance on such sly stratagems, etc.). Perhaps you try to get a good balance of sources, including theoretical discussion of the use of stratagems as well as reactions to specific examples of deception on campaign.


Deception, thy name is Megatron

So you’ve found dozens or hundreds of quotes from contemporaries – verily, the digital age has given early modern historians (military ones at least) a bounty of evidence to sift through! You have plenty of notes on other topics as well, so you need to identify those specific to deception for future reference. You could take the shortest route and simply tag them all with a “deception” tag. Assuming you want to examine whether contemporaries considered deception laudable or execrable, you could make your life easier and further sort your quotes into two bins based on the stance presented in each source: those quotes that support the use of deception (pro-deception) and those that are against it (anti-deception). Or maybe there are three possible values for this variable: pro, con, and ambivalent/neutral. Heck, maybe add in a separate value for those sources that you checked which you’d think should discuss the utility of deception but actually don’t – perhaps that’s noteworthy. So we have one Stance category with four possible values: pro, con, neutral/ambivalent, or not discussed. Call the Stance variable a group, a tag, a field, a category, or what have you. Note-takers don’t appear to have a standardized vocabulary for such things.

Thus tagged, you can now easily find those hundreds of examples in just about any note-taking system worth its salt. But historians, at least systematic ones, want to look for patterns within that data. A whole range of questions start to bubble up. Maybe you want to see if particular types of people shared the same view on the subject? Or whether geography or chronology (or both) played a role in shaping opinions on the morality of deception? Maybe you wonder whether these contemporary prescriptions and proscriptions were universal, or did contemporary judgments depend on the situation? Maybe you speculate that there are finer gradations within the pro-deception camp? Figuring out all of these questions require slicing the data in a number of different ways. To do this, you need additional categories to differentiate your notes on deception.

  1. Let’s say you’re looking at the question primarily from the perspective of two groups, say, the English and the French (see how we’re staying totally hypothetical here?). So maybe you want to see if the English were more likely than the French to express their opposition to the use of trickery. (If you wanted to count up the quotes, you could even get all statistical, in a cross tab-y sort of way: nominal variable x nominal variable.) So we should add another variable, call it Side, to the Stance measure. That’s two variables to keep track of for each quote.
  2. But “Side” isn’t really specific enough. What we probably mean by “Side” is actually the side of the author of the quote. This assumes, of course, that the author’s point of view is represented by the quote, i.e. the quote isn’t part of a dialogue where one or both characters might not even represent the author’s position, or the author isn’t playing devil’s advocate in the text, or presenting the opposition’s case before rebutting it… Add a SideOfAuthor category.
  3. And if we have an SideOfAuthor field, we probably also need to note when a French author is taking about the French, versus when he might be talking about the English (maybe he’s even talking about a specific Englishman). Perhaps authors saw a difference between the two worth noting? Make it three variables (Stance, SideOfAuthor, SideOfSubject) for our note-taking system, or four for greater precision (Stance, SideOfAuthor, SideOfSubject, SubjectPerson).
  4. But maybe you perceive that the English seem more likely to talk about deception when the French are doing the deceiving – now we’re combining the previous categories. Cynical by nature, you wonder if the French do the same – seeing the deceptive dustmote in the English eye while ignoring the lying log in their own. Is it generally true that each side tends to downplay its own deceptive qualities and highlight those of its enemies, or is there a shared preference for (or against) deception in war? You could figure it out by looking for all the cases where a French author discusses a French subject, and when an English author discusses with an English subject. To be certain, you’d need to examine all four cells of what I like to call “the box.”
    The "Box"

    The “Box”

    To quickly sort all those hundreds of quotes into the four cells, you need those categories. In case you want to look at more than two sides – throw in the Dutch for good measure – you’ll convert your SideOfAuthor variable from a binary one (possibilities being French or English) to one allowing three or more options. If you want to make it a bit easier, you could add another binary variable, “Self”, which includes possible values of “self”, i.e. the author’s own side, and “other,” i.e. not the author’s side. That way, if you want to query whether authors were self-serving or not, you can simply use the Self variable, rather than test all the pairs of SideOfSubject and SideOfAuthor (SoS=French and SoA=French, SoS=English and SoA=English, SoS=Dutch and SoA=Dutch…).
    But just because you’ve aggregated upward, don’t throw out the more specific SideOfSubject variable. Keep it so you can, for example, group together all the non-English authors’ views of the English if you were looking at more than two countries – to find out if everybody else is ganging up on the poor ol’ English (SoS=English and SoA=not English). Or maybe you’re interested to see if one nationality is more likely to talk about themselves (or the Other) than the Other.

  5. We might want to add yet another variable, what I vestigially refer to as EventID. This could be composed of another generic-specific variable pair: a specific combat field (the specific variable) and a related field for combat type (a generic variable based off of the specific combat). There should be a field indicating the type of combat (deception in a surprise attempt, deception in a battle, deception in a siege…). Is deception more acceptable if it leads to a battle than if it leads to a siege? The specific variable in the pair would be a specific combat (the battle of Ramillies, the siege of Lille, the surprisal of Ghent…). Keeping paired general-specific variables gives you flexibility and scalability.
    Other plausible variables could be derived from this Event category. Perhaps contemporaries were pure functionalists: they praised (actual) cases of deception – regardless of who deceived whom – when they succeeded, and excoriated liars only when they were caught out? Or maybe there was a gradual shift in how a specific example of deception was viewed – maybe the French surprisal of Ghent in 1708 was declared base treachery when the English first learned of it, but within a few years the English had gained perspective and come to appreciate the cunning French trick? Perhaps you could examine those curious cases where you know deception was used at a specific event yet its use was not mentioned in a particular source (Stance=not discussed)…

So now we have a good setup, needing at least five different variables to answer our constellation of questions surrounding early modern views on military deception: Stance, SideOfAuthor, SideOfSubject, Self, and Event. Each quote needs the answers to these five questions. And that doesn’t include all the other variables that are associated with these five categories. To give just one example, each author has various attributes that might be germane in addition to their Side: maybe opinions on the utility of deception vary by one’s generational status, by an author’s military experience, by the theaters he fought in or the other authors that author read… Lots of metadata to keep track of.

Is this note-taking scenario over the top? Not at all. Not if historians want to base their arguments on more than a random or superficial glance at the sources. Not if historians want to avoid magically finding only evidence that confirms their preconceptions. And not if historians want to make use of the range of sources now easily accessible. In fact, the above example is even simpler than the reality. We could start by simply adding further possible values to existing variables. For the Self category, it would probably be important to appreciate that an English author could be talking about an Englishman (maybe need to break that up further into Tory vs. Whig, or Court-Country, as well as which the author is), or this English author could be referring to an enemy (who could be the hated French, or maybe the despised-yet-want-to-be-trading-partners-with-them-all-the-same Spanish, or the problematic Protestant Hungarians rebelling against England’s Catholic Austrian ally), or perhaps the English author actually was referring to an ally (Prince Eugene), or perhaps even discussing a neutral (Charles XII of Sweden in his concurrent Great Northern War, or maybe the less-sympathetic Terrible Turks), or maybe it’s a historical reference to Caesar’s use of deception. So at the least, possible Self values could include: own side, enemy, ally, neutral, historical. I can certainly imagine a scenario where an author would opportunistically treat his friends and allies more gently than his enemies, but his friends more kindly even than his allies (or certain kinds of allies, maybe the Protestant ones…). Other structural additions might be needed: some of the variables might have records that require multiple values: maybe it’s noteworthy to see if, whenever English authors discuss their own deceptive practices, they always introduce French subterfuge to muddy the issue? In this case SideOfSubject might need both French and English values for the same quote, or at least a “more than one” value. Does your note-taking system allow this? I hope so. You could plausibly keep throwing in additional variables – the list goes on and on.

Too detailed? Not really. Too specialized to be useful for other topics? Hardly. These categories are not unique to the question of military deception. These categories are, in fact, inherent in just about every possible topic somebody might be discussing: Author A, member of group B (SideOfAuthor), said C (Stance) about person/group D’s behavior (SideOfSubject) regarding topic E (in this case, use of military deception). Whenever more than one type of people (or more than one person) says something about somebody else (or themselves), either in general or relating to a specific instance, and has an opinion on it, you should be tracking these details. You’ll never know if your sources are being self-serving or not without this information. You’ll never know how widespread a particular opinion was without this information. You’ll never know which possible patterns help explain the phenomenon under study without this information. In short, you’ll never really know.

How does this intersect with note-taking? You can mentally assign values to each of these variables every time you read the quote, but note-taking is about summarizing the quote in numerous ways so you don’t need to reprocess it every time. You need categories, ways to organize any single quote, or any list of quotes, by any (or all) of these variables. So you might as well spend a few minutes at the start (after you’re read some sources) figuring out which variables are worth tracking and what their possible values might be (keep room for future changes), and then track them for each record. That’s the note-taker’s way.

Next post: how this all relates to Devonthink. I think.


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2 responses to “The deceptive nature of note-taking”

  1. jsmickey says :

    Years later, this is still an excellent article. Was critical for my research (I ended up with nine variables… a lot of overhead for each note, but now each note is useful). Thank you for your guidance!

  2. jostwald says :

    Glad it was helpful. Classic data analysis never goes out of style…

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