TCS Daily

The Scribe's Problem Child

By Robert McHenry - January 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Dear (if I may be so forward) Tim,

I read and enjoyed your discussion of Wikipedia and Britannica, and let me say at once that I appreciate your appreciation of such virtues as the latter may have in your eyes. I do have one or two quibbles.

First, you begin by describing my recent article as being about "the superiority of Britannica over Wikipedia." If you'll just glance back, you'll see that I did not mention the Encyclopædia Britannica in the article. I referred to my own training as an editor at the company that publishes it, as representative of what I take to be responsible reference publishing, but I made no claim for the product. Indeed, I've not mentioned Britannica, firm or encyclopedia, in any of my articles on the Wikipedia.

That may seem disingenuous, and I've no defense that would convince all the commenters, here at TCS and elsewhere, who have inferred that I write on behalf of Britannica. Likewise, I can only declare, with no proof, that I have some criticisms of Britannica, too, but they are matter for another day.

In your article you say that I committed a logical error, and if I understand you correctly that error consists in assuming that what let's call the professional model of encyclopedia must in every instance produce a superior product to that of the amateur model. I don't think I implied that, and I know I don't believe it. So, let it be said right here, right now: the Encyclopædia Britannica includes many errors. Anyone surprised by that fact is naïve; anyone who imagines that I or anyone else ever associated with the encyclopedia didn't know it and didn't spend sleepless nights fretting about it, is a fool (and please be assured that in that group I certainly do not include you). The sangfroid of the Wikipedians -- "So? Fix it yourself!" -- was not an option for us.

The possible sources of error in a reference work are as the sands of the shore. Your description of the Scribe's Problem is apt and instructive. I've seen it over and over, and it has sometimes occurred in Britannica. Here's an example of another type, which we may call the Unrealized Future Problem. Some Britannica editor, decades ago, composed a brief entry for a town in Virginia that included mention of a nearby dam. Now, he was writing before the dam was actually built and evidently relied on some persuasive material collected from the local boosters. The article stood unrevised (except for the population figure) for more than 20 years, until someone wrote to inform us that the dam project had long since been cancelled. This particular booboo made good wire-service copy and filler material for a number of newspapers across the country.

(By the way, have you ever seen a newspaper story about an error in Chambers, or Collier's, or Encarta? I haven't. I wonder why that is.)

This is my favorite, though: In October 1948, as the nation prepared for a presidential election, the editors at G. & C. Merriam Co. were in the final stages of preparing a new printing of their Collegiate® Dictionary. A question arose about the entry in the biographical section for President Truman. Should his term of office be shown as a blank (in which case it would differ from the treatment given other officeholders), should it be shown as (1945- ), or should it be shown as (1945-49)? The editor in chief favored the first solution but felt the question was of such moment that he passed it up to the president of the company, who decided in favor of the third. (Could he also have had something to do with the famous Chicago Tribune headline?)

Expert authors make mistakes, as one of my earlier anecdotes illustrated. Editors make mistakes. Proofreaders make mistakes. Lord knows, presidents do, too. In short, humans make mistakes. The reason for having an editorial process is to minimize the number of mistakes that get published by having many persons look at any given piece of copy beforehand. One of the consultants I had to deal with opined we should aim for 99.95% accuracy in copy, using a number he had picked up in some class on quality control in manufacturing. He changed the subject after we pointed out that this would translate to an average of 5 typographic errors per page.

I cannot comment usefully on the Nature report, for I have not seen the raw data. There are grounds to question their methodology. Your phrase "umm, research," suggests that you may share some of my questions about their procedure. Yet, like many other commenters and headline writers, you summarize their published result as "comparable levels of errors," rather than, say, "Wikipedia: one-third more errors, and badly written, too."

My criticisms of Wikipedia have been chiefly of the process, which is too open and unguided to produce reliably good output. Many Wikipedia articles are, as its defenders never tire of saying, good and even excellent. Fine. How do I, the user, know which ones are and which aren't? How do I know that one properly described today as excellent will be excellent when I look at it tomorrow?

Wikipedia offers, among its God-knows-how-many articles, one on me. This is no great distinction, for it must follow from the Warhol Hypothesis (the one about 15 minutes of fame) that sooner rather than later Wikipedia will have an article about everyone. Mine amuses me because you would think that, given my public criticisms of Wikipedia's inaccuracies, someone would have taken the trouble to make sure that it is correct. But no; it contains many errors. Not being the constitutional monarch, I observe the rules and do not edit it myself.

I said in my last article that the Internet deserves a great encyclopedia. It was my belief, once, that Britannica would fill that role. It didn't happen. (If you are interested, Britannica was the first encyclopedia on the Internet and had some pretty good ideas; see this brief history.) Wikipedia, as currently organized, isn't it, either, and won't be.

I can't tell you, Tim, how pleased I am to learn that you were one of our correspondents at old EB. We answered every letter, and latterly email, and benefited greatly from the suggestions and corrections offered. But first we checked them out.

On that subject, I wonder if I can induce you to reconsider that paragraph in your article in light of the analogy you use to begin it? Our behavior at EB was, if you think about it, that of a market actor. The abuse you received from Wikipedians, and which I have, too, reminds me of nothing so much as the smug, petty malevolence of government bureaucrats.

With warm regards,
Bob McHenry

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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