Saturday, 9 January 2010

fact or fiction

Do you trust everything you read in books? I pose this question because it is my belief that if the information you want is important, then it is a sensible strategy to seek independent corroboration.

In my previous incarnation as a freelance book editor, I worked on hundreds of science and philosophy titles for Longman and Routledge. Many of these were second or third editions requiring a complete re-edit because the author had rewritten large segments of the book. When this happened, I was provided with a copy of an earlier edition for reference.

I mention this because I frequently found gross factual errors that had escaped the notice of the editor of the earlier edition. In a book on environmental science, for example, the author had written that 15 degrees of longitude is equivalent to five minutes instead of one hour. I discovered many mistakes like this, but I’ve forgotten almost all of them now.

However, two do still stick in my memory. In the fourth edition of a general science textbook that I was proofreading (I did that too), I came across the following sentence, which had appeared in all previous editions:
One is reminded of the psalm: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
Aargh! It may seem pedantic to some to insist on correcting this in a science textbook, especially at proof stage, when this type of correction will cost the publisher money, but it is from Ecclesiastes, for heaven’s sake!

But if you think that was bad, I came across a real howler while editing the third edition of An Introduction to Global Environmental Issues, a standard textbook for second- and third-year university students of environmental science that is the size of a typical telephone directory. I’m bound to say that the glossary in the third edition contains an incorrect definition of chaos theory, but I disclaim all responsibility: I was unable to convince the author that he was wrong. The book also has a chapter on the effect of volcanic eruptions on climate, which inter alia includes an account of how the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 had fired so much volcanic ash into the stratosphere that it had affected sunsets around the world for several years thereafter. The account concluded with this sentence, which appeared as written here in both the first and second editions:
This was captured by John Turner in his paintings of the period.
If you think you know what is wrong with this sentence, do leave a comment. My reaction was to delete it completely, which in retrospect may also have been a mistake.


  1. I don't have an opinion on the sentence but just stopped by to say "Greetings from the Coffee Shop." Happy blogging!

  2. Well this is a little scary..

  3. i really like your blogs. im following, i'm not sure wat the correct sentense should be but this is really wrong.

  4. hey really liked your blog. Now will be more carefull while reading books.
    i'm not sure what the correct sentence should be but im sure this one is wrong.

  5. Well, here is MY response to that question...

    "Fiction is the truth inside the lie."
    Truman Capote

    Thank-you for an INTELLIGENT blog, as rare and as glistening as dry snow-flakes on a cold winter's night!


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  6. I'm for deleting it..
    The paragraph before it addressed volcanic ash and sunsets...not Turner's paintings. It may be an somewhat interesting fact, but it's apples and oranges to me!

    Also, thanks for the kind words earlier on my site.

  7. Pat, yours is certainly a valid reason for deleting the sentence, but notice that I described it as a "real howler". There is something fundamentally wrong with it.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. According to the National Gallery of Art ( Turner died in 1851. How could Turner capture anything in his paintings that didn’t happen for 32 years after his death? Interesting…

  10. You are borderline Genius, and very interesting to say the least. One man's theory is another man's puzzle.

    I have always wondered who truly wrote the Bible and how accurate it really is. For all we know it could have been some peasant with a big imagination who was fortunate enough to be in possession of ink and paper. After his death the writings were discovered and someone else took credit for them. Yes it sounds a bit far fetched, but so does the Bible itself.

  11. Interesting reading! I now find myself questioning the validity of everything I learnt at uni!

    1. Not everything Ed. I saw it as my mission to expunge as many factual errors from the books I worked on as possible, bearing in mind who would be reading them.

  12. There is actually another implied error as well as the glaring name mistake. Turner would hardly have been able to paint anything in the time of Krakatoa from the grave.

    1. There are actually two errors associated with the name: (1) his name was Joseph, not John; and (2) it is not standard practice to include the given name of an artist.

      By the way, notice that I said that deleting it might have been a mistake. Turner was known for his lurid sunsets, but in his case the spectacular sunsets were caused not by the eruption of Krakatoa but by the eruption of Tambora in 1815, the ‘year without a summer’. Incidentally, this is the same author who provided an incorrect definition of chaos theory, which I was unable to persuade him to change.


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