Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The reproduction of error

Gene Logsdon
Those who produce reference books, in most cases, do more of their research in libraries than out in the field. In other words, their reference books are dependent on other, earlier reference books. You can't very well expect writers and editors to start from scratch each time. No, a new atlas begins with maps from earlier atlases. A new dictionary begins with words from earlier dictionaries. And so on.

Unfortunately, what this means in practice is that erroneous or misleading information contained in one book tends to get repeated in subsequent ones. "After several generations of copying each other's book knowledge," Gene Logsdon writes in A Sanctuary of Trees, "the errors feed on themselves and multiply."

Logsdon laments his own small role in reproducing wrong information in a reference book on which he worked for Rodale Press back in 1976. The book was Trees for the Yard, Orchard, and Woodlot, and he was one of the editors, even if not the editor responsible for the error in question. Nevertheless, he writes, "I have a notion I would have overlooked the error anyway." The error referred to the "small size" of the  chinquapin oak and to the use of its wood in construction. After years of walking through woodlands, Logsdon realized this particular oak can grow to a great size, but because of its scarcity, he adds, "if you can find a board of it in any house or barn built in the last thirty years, I'll buy you a steak dinner at the restaurant of your choice."

This was a case of Rodale repeating information about a tree from some previous book, and no doubt subsequent reference books have repeated the same information, or misinformation, from the Rodale book.

When I worked for a newspaper I believed that no error-free newspaper has ever been printed. The same is probably true of reference books. It is simply impossible to double-check and triple-check every fact, every name, every spelling and every piece of punctuation.

I just discovered this morning that Gene Logsdon, who lived just a couple of counties away from me, died nearly a year ago on June 2, 2016. He was 84. Errors happen, but it's good to know there are a few people in this world like him who care so much about getting things right that they fret about past errors, even errors they were not directly responsible for. In his own book, he tried to make it right.

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