Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Be Suspicious of Facts

Remember the 8-track stereo cartridge? 8-track (and 4-track) stereo cartridges and players were really hot consumer items throughout most of the 1960s. For the first time, you could listen to the music you wanted--without commercials, and without changing and scratching records. (In-car record players were hopelessly vulnerable to potholes.) Once you put the tape in, all you had to do was listen. A typical tape offered an entire album's worth of songs on an endless loop of quarter-inch tape. If you wanted to skip a song, you could move among program channels or just drive your way to the next tune (the Sixties' version of fast-forward).

The cartridge was eventually eased out of the picture by the cassette tape, but not before it made its mark on popular culture, and the music and automotive industries. The history of this technology is part of a project I have in the works--and a fascinating history it is, involving a surprising range of people and events. (And, no: Bill Lear didn't invent the technology.)

As I tracked the development of the stereo cartridge, I was reminded of how easy it is to change history without trying. All you have to do is not check facts. Go with the first source you consult, or the story that offers the most entertainment value. It's easier, takes less time, and most of your readers won't know the difference. (And if you don't check your facts, you won't know that you're repeating the mistakes of those whose work you copy.)

This fast-track research seems to be very popular among those who write popular histories. I observed it when I was researching Crosley and Before Oprah: Ruth Lyons, the Woman Who Created Talk TV. Not to mention dozens of other subjects. And I'm seeing it now, as I research the evolution of the stereo tape cartridge. In the hands of short-cutting researchers, televisions morph into radios. Events that took place in 1940 flash forward to 1956. Toledo becomes Cleveland.

How do such transformations happen?

Consider the Toledo/Cleveland switch. The cities should be difficult to confuse: they're on opposite sides of Ohio, and Cleveland's the place where the river caught fire. But one can imagine an academic or freelance writer seated at her desk some time in the 1990s, surrounded by references, and jumping between notes and manuscript on the computer screen. The book she's writing includes passing mention of an engineer from Ohio named George Eash. (Eash came up with the first practical endless-loop audio tape cartridge--the template for radio station as well as auto stereo carts.) She remembers the name but can't remember the city. "Okay. He was from Ohio...but which city?"

She can't put her hands on the source immediately. Maybe she's up against a deadline. So she ponders for a moment more, hoping for a reliable memory. It was only last week that she'd read about Eash, after all...

"Cincinnati? No--nobody is from Cincinnati." Then she writes "Cleveland," because she's never been to Ohio but Cleveland pops right up because--well, because it's a name in the media. There's the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. And Drew Carey. Strong associations, those. "Yeah. If I remember it, it must be Cleveland. It's a big town. And it sounds good."

Three years later someone researching the same subject comes across her book. "Oh--he was from Cleveland! That saves me some digging." He doesn't bother checking other sources; the book he's reading is from a university press, and surely they must check all the facts--right? So he puts this "fact" into his notes and into his book. Several more writers duplicate and reinforce the error in books and magazines.

Oops! Before long, flawed memory becomes fact.

Nine years later I come along and take a quick look through their books and articles. As always, I'm checking multiple sources, and their info doesn't jibe with what I've seen elsewhere. "Cleveland?" I ask myself. "That doesn't seem right." I double-check my own notes and find that Eash told magazine and newspaper interviewers in the 1950s that he was from Toledo. Eash holds some patents and--by golly!--his residence is listed as Toledo in the patent records.

Now, maybe swapping Cleveland for Toledo isn't such a big deal. But it could be--especially if someone needs to know more about Eash and his activities. And there's the general point of Getting It Right. Isn't that what historians and journalists are supposed to do?

It is. But too many don't get it right for lack of checking a second (or third) source. Repeated often enough, erroneous information becomes historical fact--something "everybody knows" to be true. Like Henry Ford inventing the automobile or Powel Crosley inventing the FAX machine, neither of which is true.

Be suspicious of your sources. Even if you find two that agree, look for a third that doesn't. If you can't find a contrary source, you're probably okay--but if you find one, it's time for a real fact-finding expedition.


Dave Kennedy said...

Mike, great post. Thanks! In addition to the underlying message of 'always check your facts', the Cleveland vs Toledo story's also interesting!

Kaz Augustin said...

I dunno, EG! You're talking about actual, y'know, work!! And who cares about details? As various lecturers have told their students (me included), "It doesn't matter if your spelling or grammar is wrong as long as I can tell what you're trying to say."

To paraphrase Groucho, "There's nothing like precision in communication, and this is nothing like precision in communication."

Michael A. Banks said...

Always a good idea to check your facts, so curmudgeons don't come along and point out your errors in blog posts (or some other media that doesn't exist yet). What inspired me to write that rambling post was the fact that (don't you hate it when someone uses "the fact that" too much?) the book in question was published by a prestigious university press.

Next time, we'll have a look at verisimilitude.

arlee bird said...

This is an interesting topic that has been coming to my attention recently. The interet has some great information, but is also notorious for perpetuating incorrect information.

I found this recently when I was researching a music topic. I'm pretty sure that my memory is pretty clear about certain things, but when I checked Wikipedia they were stating dates and facts that didn't make sense. I started checking other websites that were giving the same information. It seems like all of the sites were all using the same source. Now I'm not really sure if my memory is really faulty or the internet sites are and so far I can't find any other source that seems really independent.

Checking several sources independent from one another is a good plan.

Tossing It Out

Michael A. Banks said...

Thanks for the comments. I also try to find at least one source that did not get her, his or its information second-hand. Failing that, I find it often to be true that the nearer in time to an event a reference (magazine article, media interview, newspaper story) was created, the more accurate info you get.