Using the Source: When it's Important to Use Source Documents, Talk to Authors

Though every person with Internet access has the possibility to check facts without a trip to the library I still see old myths being repeated in articles, lectures, workshops, videos and TV shows. Hardly a day goes by without me seeing someone saying that we use only 10% of our brains, or how only 7% of communication is in the words, or the old myth about Henry Ford and the "faster horse". Two years ago I wrote about this problem in The Creation of Levi's: Why Writers and Speakers Should Always Check Facts. In this piece I recommended that everyone should at least run a quick Google check before repeating these myths. In search results the popular mythbusting sites are always on the first page. Wikipedia articles usually debunk common myths, too.

But there is another technique careful writers and speakers can apply to avoid repeating or even creating myths and misinterpretations: go to the source. I was given this advice as a student. Some professor whose name I have long forgotten once suggested that the best way to avoid misunderstanding research is to bypass all of the secondary interpretations and to read the author's original work.

Many sources, for example, have reported that science-fiction author Arthur Clarke invented the communications satellite. When you read his original October 1945 article in Wireless World magazine you discover that this is not exactly true. What Clarke envisioned was not a communication satellite in the usual sense but a satellite for direct-broadcast TV, something which did eventually emerge. And by satellite he meant what most people would now called a "space station", since he envisaged that the men on board would be needed for maintenance.

Another common misunderstanding is the oft-repeated claim that words only contribute 7% to any communication -- the other 93% being body language and facial expression. You can easily demonstrate to yourself that this is plainly nonsense by watching a TED lecture with the sound turned down. This myth is, in fact, a horrible distortion of research conducted by Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s and his conclusions were not that 7% of communication is in the words but that 7% of feelings or attitudes -- likes and dislikes -- are linked to the words. You can read about Mehrabian's original 1967 experiments for yourself in Decoding of Inconsistent Communications, Mehrabian & Weiner and Inference of Attitudes from Non-Verbal Communication in Two Channels, Mehrabian & Ferris.

Reading original papers is an excellent way to avoid repeating misinterpretations of research results, but there is also an even better way that is often available: ask the author of the original paper what it meant. This is much easier than you might imagine yet it is a very effective way to verify facts.  Recently I found an old question on the Quora question and answer site that asked "Once a culture becomes totally advertising friendly it ceases to be a culture at all: Do you agree."  Several people had attempted to answer the question but without really being sure what the quote meant.

A quick Google search revealed that this quote comes from Mark Crispin Miller, Professor of Media, Culture and Communications at New York University. Google also provided more context in the form of the complete quote but to be sure of the meaning I asked Professor Miller by email -- his email address is on the university website. He very kindly sent me an email explaining exactly what he had meant by that quote:

"In any case, a culture that's totally advertising-friendly would be one in which all contrary or dissentient content, whether it be news, art or entertainment, must be suppressed or forced out to the margins; since advertising is a form of propaganda, whose makers always want, and do their utmost to create, "a good environment" for their output. That means no contradiction, and no contiguous material that might somehow detract from the appeal. Thus the force of advertising makes itself felt not just positively—i.e., through its overt stimuli—but also negatively, through the censorship it necessarily entails."

Myths and distortions are easy to avoid. You can read the source documents for almost any claim simply by googling them and in many cases you can also ask the author what he or she meant. There is no excuse today for people to repeat the same myths again and again, yet they still do. Check everything, even the things you think you are sure about, and remember that in cases where secondary documents are not convincing you can always use the source.

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For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching or writing on this or other communication topics you can reach me by email at, through my website or by phone at 0033 6 79 61 42 81 or 0046 730 894 475


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