Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Creation of Levi's and Why Writers and Speakers Should Always Check Facts

Back in the pre-Internet days fact checking was not something you did lightly. Except for some basic facts you could find in an encyclopedia, most questions required a trip to the library and hours of work leafing through musty books or scrolling through reels of microfilm. Not surprisingly when people were on deadline to write an article or prepare a speech they often skipped this step, so many stories were copied from one work to another without verification. People sometimes blame mindless copying on the world-wide web, but in reality it happened long before the web was invented.

Today I was reminded of this when I went to check the story about the invention of Levi's jeans. You have probably heard the popular story that Levi Strauss was selling dry goods to miners in the California gold rush of the mid 1800s when he noticed they were wearing out their clothes in the rough mining work. He took some brown canvas, made it into jeans and added rivets to strengthen the joints. Miners loved them, Strauss sold millions and is still selling them today.

This legend is not actually true and the Levi Strauss company admits this openly on their company website. In the heritage section there is a long and detailed article on the history of denim that tells the true story. What I also liked is that they acknowledge the well-known legend, explaining that this inaccurate version might be partly due to the loss of company records and other documents in the fire that followed the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Almost every time when I factcheck widely accepted stories I find that often they are not entirely true and sometimes they are entirely not true, convincing me that you need to factcheck everything.

Take the popular legend that Henry Ford once said "If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse". This never sounded like the way Ford spoke and was effectively debunked by Patrick Vlaskovitz in the Harvard Business Review blogs with a post titled "Henry Ford, Innovation and that "Faster Horse" Quote, of 29 August 2011. If you don't have time to read the whole article here is the executive summary: Ford never said this and there is no record of anyone saying he said it before 2002. 

Proving that someone never said something is impossible, but when there is a complete absence of proof in a well-documented life like Henry Ford's it would be irresponsible to use the story without at least noting that it is probably apocryphal. Another story in this category is an old legend about Western Union. When Bell demonstrated his telephone to company officials, the legends recounts, they rejected it because they could not see what the point was. A funny tale but again there is no documented source for this story and given the state of telephone technology at the time their skepticism was probably justified. I have occasionally mentioned this story in lectures about innovation, but I add always that I cannot verify the story so it might not be true...

These are just three examples, You see dozens more in those annoying "inspirational quotes" tweets and pins that mostly inspire me to unfollow/defriend people who are so careless with the truth. But for writers, speakers and educators there is a lesson here: always verify every fact, every story, every date and every number. You'd be surprised how much of the stuff "everyone knows" is either out of date or plain wrong. With most of the world's knowledge a google away, you have no excuses.


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2 comments:

Ben Kunz said...

Great points ... yet it is really getting difficult to check facts. So much information is recast on social media, or crowdsourced on Wikipedia, that we seem to have become comfortable with a 95% certainty level. I don't know about you, but when I read Wikipedia I don't backtrack to every source link to see their verification.

Unfortunately as you suggest when the 5% is wrong, it can be really wrong, and potentially damaging.

I'd pay money for a fact-checking app that ferreted out the truth for me. If I could trust it, of course...

Andrew Hennigan said...

Thanks for the comment. I'll let you know if I ever see that app. For now I use a mixture of Wikipedia, Quora, Google News Archive, Snopes and so on.

Sometimes the original source is hard to find. In this case this usually means the fact isn't verifiable. The bets thing about Wikipedia is that you can see when a fact is unsourced. I try to indicate sources on every blog post and every presentation. For articles where the editor doesn't ask for sources I still file them all for my reference. If there isn't a source don't use the fact!