Always Think for Yourself


Linus Pauling

I love it when a story has a happy ending. And this one does. Sort of.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux put out a new book a few weeks ago, Pandemic, by a good science/medical writer, Sonia Shah. To promote the book, they pulled some startling facts from Shah’s introduction and used them on the back cover and in other marketing material. Here are the “facts” as Shah presented them in her book: “90 percent of epidemiologists said that a pandemic that will sicken 1 billion, kill up to 165 million, and trigger a global recession that could cost up to $3 trillion would occur sometime in the next two generations.”

Startling numbers. Also very precise and factual sounding, and, well, science-y. Shah even footnoted her statement, citing a study done some years ago.

But turns out these are not “facts” at all. Ninety percent of epidemiologists have never said any such thing; there don’t appear to be any published studies at all to back up the statement. Turns out these “facts” are nothing more than guesses, extrapolations of  worst-case scenarios floated by a small group of attendees at a private meeting more than a decade ago. They were mentioned in a TED talk in 2006. And Shah picked them up from there.

I spent a little time trying to get to the source of the statement, only to find smoke. In other words, as Gertrude Stein said, “There is no there there.”

But now to the happy part(s):

  1. I got to indulge in detective work. I love that.
  2. I got to communicate with several bright, interesting people, from Larry Brilliant to Jennifer Senior. I like that.
  3. I got to explode some fake facts used to scare people into buying a book. Great.
  4. And Sonia Shah graciously acknowledged the error and pledged to correct it. This is the best of all.

There is also a not-so-happy part: I found out that fact-checking is not done, or is not done well, by most major book publishers.  This, to me, is even more startling than Shah’s statement. I have been writing books for three decades. I love the industry. I trust that books from major publishers will be accurate.  I assume that they have been checked for accuracy. But my assumptions, it turns out, are wrong.

Most book publishers don’t fact check books. They don’t. They really don’t.

Instead, most standard book contracts (mine included) shuffle the responsibility for accuracy onto authors. Editors focus on voice and flow and grammar. Publishers focus on sales. The only ones who have to take responsibility for factual accuracy, it seems, are writers.

Another illusion shattered. And a lesson learned.

What does this mean for readers? Well, caveat emptor, I suppose. As Linus Pauling said, “When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect — but do not believe him. Never put your trust in anything but your own intellect. . . .  Always think for yourself.”