April 1, 2014 8:45AM

Great Moments in Academic Citation

Last year,* Twitter was, well, atwitter with news of a report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, and Arbitrary Executions (who knew there was one of those?) calling for a moratorium on “lethal autonomous robots.” Readers who have seen Terminator 2 will know the potential for trouble in such platforms, but the UN came online with some concerns of its own.

The real utility of the UN’s call for a moratorium, however, is to allow me to start a competition: “great moments in academic citation.” What does academic citation have to do with autonomous robot armies, you ask? Simple. One of the entrants has to do with exactly that subject.

I think all scholars and policy wonks have occasionally come across a brilliantly witty turn of phrase buried in a footnote of an otherwise dry academic treatise. Three stuck in my mind enough that I kept them written down.

Sadly, though, I only have three entries worthy of competing against one another, and all are from my narrow reading in security studies. Which means I need your help: If you have another entrant, from a bona fide, published scholarly work (or approved dissertation) in whatever field but on this level of wit, email me to enter it in the competition. The prize is nothing. With that…

Great Moments in Academic Citation Competition, 2014


Text: “[C]apital and labor are imperfect replacements and show diminishing returns; given a hundred tanks and ten soldiers, adding another tank will not produce as much military power as another soldier. Until it is possible to build a military made entirely of robots, defense requires some of both factors.”

Footnote: “Even then this is likely to be prohibitively expensive and may very well result in a war between humans and machines programmed to enslave us all, a public bad.”

Jonathan Caverley, Death and Taxes: Sources of Democratic Military Aggression, PhD diss. University of Chicago, 2008.



Text: “[M]ultiple qualifying parameters need to be taken into account when considering population as an indicator of how large a military can be…Fourth is, for lack of a better phrase, the willingness to serve (and the willingness to learn how to fight)…”

Footnote: “One of the themes that emerges by comparing the military effectiveness of one nation’s forces to another’s is that operationally successful nations (e.g. Germany) have soldiers who value the ability to fight intelligently, while the less successful nations (e.g. Italy) seem to have great difficulty in learning the operational art of war. See Allen R. Millett and Williamson Murray, eds., Military Effectiveness, Vol. 3: The Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).”

Martin C. Libicki, Howard J. Shatz, and Julie E. Taylor, “Global Demographic Change and Its Implications for Military Power,” RAND Corporation Monograph 1091.


CANDIDATE THREE (cheating because most of the humor is in the text)

Text: “Why would American leaders in a diplomatic confrontation with Chinese leaders rely on an audience cost strategy? American leaders must believe Chinese leaders believe that American leaders believe that American citizens believe that Chinese leaders believe that failure to keep a commitment results in a reputation for irresolution, so Americans must boot their leaders from office, and that is why Chinese leaders will view audience costs as decisive evidence that a commitment is credible. An argument that depends on a belief about a belief about a belief about a belief is unbelievable. Perhaps no one uses audience cost strategies because everyone knows that everyone knows that no one can keep the argument straight….”

Footnote (cheating here, too; footnote comes a bit later than above text but is germane): “One realizes recursion’s comedic potential when a television character, Phoebe Buffay, matches the levels of British deception: “They don’t know that we know they know we know.” “The One Where Everybody Finds Out,” Friends, NBC, 1999. See also Patricia Cohen, “Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know,” New York Times, 31 March 2010.

Jonathan Mercer, “Audience Costs Are Toys,” Security Studies 21, no. 3 (July-September 2012).

Let the wittiest scholar(s) win!

*(I started this post last year, but had trouble coming up with a third entrant. Political scientists are not, as a group, very funny in print. But now my third entrant problem has been solved.)