I’m always working to catch up on the ever-increasing pile of New Yorkers at my house (or as one of their cartoon captions once said, “How is never? Is never good for you?”). But I’ve just read a great article in the February 9/16, 2009 issue by John McPhee about fact-checking. And fact-checking in particular at the New Yorker.
The prowess of NY’s fact-checkers is legend, perhaps matched only by National Geographic. I used to work for some of Nat Geo’s publications and remember hearing the following story more than once. (Is it true or urban myth? I did hear it from an editor there, but that hearsay source wouldn’t satisfy a real fact checker!)
Anyway, a writer returned from Africa where he was researching a story about elephants. Supposedly he went to the fact-checker’s office and plunked a bag on her desk. I’ll be writing about the color and smell of elephant dung, he said, and knew you would demand verification.
It’s a funny story, but it also seems a bit hostile. I can understand that. Sometimes fact-checkers can be a little too precise. Their exacting minds can take the fun or magic out of things. In my book On This Spot, I was describing a prehistoric bloodbath and wrote, “Meanwhile a phytosaur was slipping into a shallow lake. When he opened his jaws, nearly 170 teeth swam toward a giant amphibian called a metoposaur. The fact-checker’s comment? “Must change, teeth can not swim.” (ps. Poetic license won the day.)
But I think the hostility in that Nat Geo story actually comes from the fact that it’s embarrassing to be caught with your pants down—to be wrong about something, especially when it’s your business to be right. I’ve felt that flash of embarrassment, maybe even a touch of hostility. But within seconds, I am profoundly grateful that the fact-checker has saved my butt. I pride myself on doing good research, but I’ve messed up more than once. Like the time the tour guide at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (which houses NASA's Educator Resource Center) said that NASA had the disposable diaper developed for the space program. Sounded good to me until the wonderful Janet Pascal, fact-checking my Truth About Poop manuscript, gave me the URL for the “Diaper Evolution Time Line” and I realized babies were wearing Pampers before Alan Shepard.
Three cheers for fact-checkers! It’s expensive, but I wish all publishers used them. You can’t have too many eyes on a page.
Ps. Then there’s the other problem—NO ONE has the right fact. That book On This Spot took a place in Lower Manhattan all the way back in geologic time to the very beginning—or at least, to when the earth was just rock, water and a dusting of algae. When was it? The top guy at Columbia gave me one date. The Harvard expert gave me another. They were many millions of years apart. And it didn’t seem as if conventional thinking took one side. What do you do?