Check Your Facts!

Trojan Horse
Will mixing up a few facts – like the origin of the Trojan Horse – destroy your credibility? Maybe not, but why risk it?

With the recent glut of fake news, it can be difficult to know who to trust. Mainstream media sources and alternative news outlets are all accusing the other of playing loose with the facts, disseminating everything from mild exaggerations to outright lies. As a result, people are losing confidence in the sources they once turned to for information.

If you’re in business, you too need to check your facts. Of course, you’d never intentionally lie to your customers. Unless you’re careful, though, you could risk losing your customer’s confidence and their business.

Common Knowledge Isn’t

All sorts of facts have become common knowledge over the years …

Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet.
Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Henry Ford invented the automobile.
Cracking your knuckles can cause arthritis.
Hair and fingernails continue to grow after a person dies.

None of these are true. Yet, many people believe them because they’ve heard them so often from so many sources. Don’t contribute to mistakes by repeating them.

Quote, Don’t Misquote

Do you remember Hamlet’s line, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well?” No, you don’t. The actual line was “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

When you quote someone – ancient or modern – quote them accurately. If Tim said, “We had fun on the trip,” don’t quote him as saying, “The trip was fantastic!” If you can’t use your source’s words verbatim, paraphrase them, but make it clear you’re paraphrasing them, not quoting them, and keep it simple. Tim enjoyed the trip.

The marketing coordinator for a motivational speaker produced a brochure promoting the speaker’s upcoming series of courses about how our actions have consequences. In it she wrote, “As Albert Einstein said, ‘For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.’” Now, to be fair, it’s likely that Einstein did make that statement at some point in his life, but if he did he was only paraphrasing Isaac Newton. The statement is a simplification of Newton’s third law of motion, published in 1687, almost 200 years before Einstein was born.

The statement, even in its simplified form, reinforces the idea the marketing coordinator was trying to make. So does it matter who said it first? Absolutely! By attributing the quote to the wrong person, the marketing coordinator calls into question the veracity of everything else she says. If we can’t trust her to get something as simple as the source of a well-known quote correct, how can we trust anything else she says?

The First Reference You Find Isn’t Necessarily Right

A while ago, in writing an article about computer security, I mentioned the Trojan Horse, a computer program that appears benign or even beneficial, but that can actually harm your system.

Of course, we’ve all heard of the original Trojan Horse; we know the legend. After besieging the city of Troy but failing to breech the walls, the Greeks construct a great wooden horse and leave it outside the city gates. The unsuspecting Trojans take the horse into the city and, that night, a force of Greek soldiers emerge from the horse and open the city gates, allowing the Greek army to take the city.

I wanted to make sure I got the source of the story right and found a reference to Homer’s Iliad. But I also found a reference to Homer’s Odyssey. What to do? I read the Iliad. Not an easy read, and no mention of the horse. So I read the Odyssey. Better, but only a brief mention of the horse; certainly not the whole story. In fact, the story of the Trojan horse appears to originate in the Aeneid of Virgil.

Would it have mattered if I had gotten the reference wrong? Yes and no. No, because it wouldn’t have changed the point of the article. Yes, because it would have called into question the credibility of the piece to anyone who spotted the mistake. But more importantly it would have spread an untruth.

Estimates Are Just That

Don’t round numbers up or down or represent estimates as hard figures to suit your purpose. If your reference says “approximately 20 percent,” report it as “approximately 20 percent,” not “20 percent.” If the number is 19, don’t say “almost 20.” Sure, 19 is almost 20, but your readers may ignore the “almost” and fixate on “20.”

We’ll talk more about statistics in another post. For now, just remember that numbers are easily misused. Don’t do it.

It takes time and effort to fact-check everything you post or publish, but it’s worth it. If you want people to trust you enough to do business with you, you need to get your facts straight.