FACTS, ERRORS AND THE KINDLE

Kindle_red.jpg

The printed word has always had an Achilles heel: factual mistakes. Can the electronic reader help? Anthony Gottlieb investigates ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

Nietzsche famously said that there are no such things as facts, only interpretations. Be that as it may, every writer knows that there are certainly such things as factual mistakes. Errors are common in all forms of media, but it is mistakes in the printed word that are perhaps the most pernicious. Once a “fact” has been pressed onto paper, it becomes a trusted source, and misinformation will multiply. The combination of human fallibility with Gutenberg’s invention of  efficient printing in 1439 has, for all the revolutionary advantages of the latter, proved (in some respects) to be a toxic mixture. 

Periodicals publish corrections in subsequent issues and some successful books are (expensively) reissued in new, improved editions. But in a better world, the book, magazine or newspaper in your hands would itself be updated when mistakes are discovered by its publisher. Thanks to the advent of electronic reading gadgets, like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, such magic is getting closer. Old-fashioned, uncorrectable books may never disappear. Only futurologists—that is, people who specialise in being wrong about the future instead of the present—would dare to predict their utter demise. Yet it is now possible that the tyranny of print will meet some powerful resistance, and that readers will benefit.   

How bad is the problem of printed errors? Well, start with newspapers. In 1936 a study of Minneapolis papers found that about half of all articles contained mistakes, and most studies since then have shown very similar res­ults—not just in Minneapolis. An analysis of such surveys, produced by the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association in 1980, concluded that half of all printed news stories included some sort of error.

Some of these mistakes will have been merely typographical or spelling errors (about 10% of them, one report suggests), and these account for a fair number of printed corrections, such as the following, cited from the Los Angeles Times in “Regret the Error”, a book about media mistakes by a Canadian journalist, Craig Silverman: “An article in Wednesday’s Calendar section about an English-language newspaper in Mexico City referred to the many American ex-patriots who live there. It should have said expatriates.” But more serious bloopers, it seems, are seldom corrected. A study of ten metropolitan daily newspapers in America, published in 2007 by Scott Maier, a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, found that less than 2% of factually flawed articles were the subject of corrections. Some papers try harder than others to set the record straight: the Guardian, in Britain, once mocked for its typos, is now renowned for its meticulous and witty corrections, and has even published a book of them.

It would be impossible to quantify the extent of error in books—indeed, unhinged even to try. Suffice it to say that “Unfortunately, the work is marred by several factual mistakes” is probably the most frequently used sentence in book reviews. Every scholar has a list of his favourite printed bloopers, and even fans of “Harry Potter” can find many websites listing narrative inconsistencies in the works of J.K. Rowling. In 2001 an analysis of the physical-science textbooks most commonly used in American middle-schools found that they were riddled with errors.

For a salutary reminder of how easy it is for well-known “facts” to be no such thing, even when they are often repeated in print, consider some of the entries in “They Never Said It”, a compendium of misquotations published in 1989. Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” (or anything like it). “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver” is a line from a play, not a quote from Hermann Goering. “Let them eat cake” began life in Rousseau’s “Confessions”, not the mouth of Marie-Antoinette. Voltaire never said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And there is no reason to think Abraham Lincoln ever said “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”—though it is evidently true that you can fool a lot of people for a long time with the aid of books. The quip “Too much checking on the facts has ruined many a good news story” has long been attributed to an American newspaper magnate, Roy Howard; needless to say, it appears to be an invention.

Book publishers mostly rely on their authors to ensure accuracy; dedicated fact-checking departments now rarely exist except at some magazines. The New Yorker’s checkers are justly renowned for their tenacious scepticism, but even they err sometimes. One reader was annoyed to find himself described as dead, and requested a correction in the next issue. Unfortunately, by the time the correction appeared, he really had died, thus compounding the error. This tale illustrates not only the drawbacks of printed media, but also the role that readers can play in overcoming them—even if things did not quite work out in this instance. Thanks to the internet, it is now easier than ever to “crowdsource” the business of fact-checking. Some book authors invite readers to e-mail them with details of any errors, and then publish corrections on their websites and in any future editions.

The paperback edition of Silverman’s book contains 12 corrections to the original hardback, and by the time this piece was written his website had one more which came in too late for the paperback. Most newspapers and magazines correct some of their articles online as errors emerge (though sometimes they merely “scrub” the original, so that no record of previous error exists). Correcting electronic books seems the logical next step.

Earlier this year Amazon caused an outcry by deleting electronic copies of some books from its customers’ Kindle reading devices when it emerged that the editions were illegal bootlegs. But would anyone object if electronic copies were replaced, by remote control, with corrected versions? Such updat­ing would be far less expensive than printing and distributing a new physical edition, though no publisher has yet announced plans to do any such thing. Craig Silverman points out that publishers might find it attractive to stay in touch with electronic-book purchasers by letting them sign up for e-mails with news of corrections. Buyers of books about Nietzsche might be interested to hear that his famous remark is taken out of context from notebooks that were not intended for publication, and that he certainly believed in the importance of facts.

**An error in the printed version, and in an earlier online version, of this article has been corrected online.

(Anthony Gottlieb is a former executive editor of The Economist and author of "The Dream of Reason". His last article for Intelligent Life was on nothingness.)