Facts of Life

Brian J Ford

Go to Home Page

Raise your hand if you have ever seen a factual error in a science book. There you are, so many hands shot up that coffee was spilled across the land as you all thought of examples. Today’s standard works are as unreliable as an election manifesto.

People rely on science reference books. As new technology encroaches on our lives, they are relying on CDs too. I am put in mind of the faith in books by a letter in the June Magazine. Peter Howard quotes my suggestion that science revels in the ‘glory of fact’ and retorts: ‘That’s what encyclopedias do.’ Ah, if only that were true.

There may have been a time, in the era of D’Alembert and Diderot, when the purpose of being an encyclopedist was to broaden the mind of the reader. These days the main thrust is rather different - it is to make as much profit as you can. This means that you aim at the largest possible sale, and keep production costs down to a minimum. Rather than determine facts from primary sources, crib them all from rival publications. There is no copyright in facts.

Modern publishers know that academics and specialists are costly to employ. So they bring in lots of new graduates and school-leavers to handle the task. They are cheap. They are hard-working. They are frightened of losing their jobs, and are therefore loyal. They may have the slight disadvantage of knowing nothing of any value about anything of any interest, but you can’t have everything.

The result is a half-digested mass of half-truths interspersed with received wisdom, and it is not easy to tell one from the other. By me as I write is a popular science reference book which devotes two pages to the atmosphere. There are glaring mistakes on both pages.

But it was not until I was working on my First Encyclopedia of Science that I found how hard it is for an author to correct mistakes. Once a notion is dignified in print it acquires its own authority, right or wrong. One of the traditional images I was determined to change was the billiard-ball atom, which became obsolete in the thirties. But it couldn’t be done. All the other books show atoms as billiard-balls, and we had to follow the convention.

Another memorable example was the flywheel inside a steam locomotive. The publisher’s art-work featured this non-existent structure, right in the middle of the picture. Twice they said they couldn't change it: once because their technical adviser had said it was correct, and then because the leading American encyclopedia depicted it. I had to ask the National Railway Museum in York to confirm my view ... by which time it was too late to change the colour separations. The book was published with the inaccurate picture. The only concession I could wring from the publishers was that the flywheel is labelled ‘crank’.

One of the most error-ridden encyclopaedias of all has just won an award for its emergence as a CD. No-one can argue with the colour, the movie clips, the bright packaging and the sound quality. But accuracy is not part of the equation. We are rearing a generation who are presented with false facts, and who, because of their disenfranchisment from science, will never notice the difference. If you see errors, then shame the publisher into paying attention. Send them your list - and you might pass a copy to me, too.

Go to the next in the series, or to the 'BrianWave' title index.

Send e-mail