[Paleopsych] NYT: To Err Is Human; It's Also a Teaching Tool
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Wed Jul 20 19:55:29 UTC 2005
To Err Is Human; It's Also a Teaching Tool
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.7.22
By DAVID D. PERLMUTTER
Some years ago, after I had filed the grades for a large lecture
course, one student -- a loyal attendee and diligent note taker
-- dropped by my office to thank me for a great semester. After some
pleasantries, she produced a typed note and said, "Oh, by the way,
professor, here is a point I caught where you were wrong."
I blinked, thanked her, and promised I would check on the matter.
After she left, I consulted some media-history texts and discovered to
my horror that, contrary to what I had informed 250 undergraduates,
Thomas Edison's first sound-recording device, his phonograph,
consisted of tinfoil wrapped around not a wax disk but a metal
I considered what my response should be. Obviously I should contact
the student and tell her that she was indeed correct. But what about
the rest of the class? Did admitting my error matter when the fact
involved was, after all, trivial? The textbook did have the facts
right. And what about the belatedness of any correction I might make?
After some internal debate, I decided that a higher principle was at
stake: Even though the semester was over, I had one more lesson to
teach my students. Admitting that you goofed is the right thing to do,
no matter who you are. The incident, and others like it, drove me to
reconsider the ways that I was teaching students to respect the truth.
In the past, when I announced that it's vital to get facts correct
through checking with multiple reliable sources, I sensed that
students were automatically recording my words but not taking them to
heart. So I have tried other strategies to explain the importance of
verifying facts. Those include citing examples of badly fumbled facts
from the worlds of politics and the news media, and dissecting the
cognitive pitfalls that lead us to get facts wrong or lure us into
thinking that inaccuracy is an acceptable practice. I have found,
however, that the single best teaching tool is for a professor to
expose his own blunders.
My general argument to students is that if you make a mistake about an
obvious fact -- that is, one not subject to controversy -- someone,
somewhere and somehow, will out you. I provide major and minor
examples. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the 2000 Republican National
Convention, recounted how he decided that he would embrace the
philosophy of the Grand Old Party after he saw the presidential
candidates Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey debate in 1968. Problem:
Nixon and Humphrey never debated in 1968.
Then there's Rudolph Giuliani in the days after September 11, 2001,
brandishing a copy of John Lukacs's Five Days in London: May 1940 and
claiming that its description of World War II Londoners holding up
under the blitz gave him strength in the trying time after the attack
on America. Problem: As the author of the book himself pointed out in
an essay in The Chronicle Review ("A Final Chapter on Churchill,"
October 24, 2003), "there is not one word about the blitz in Five
Although I devote substantial class time to talking about lies, or
deliberate misinformation, I pay particular attention to errors like
Schwarzenegger's and Giuliani's -- and mine about Edison -- cases in
which the communicator probably did not intend to get anything wrong.
I have an ideological agenda behind such instruction.
It is no great insight to say that today's youth are cynical. I do not
know whether they are more cynical than any previous generation in
history -- men and women who reached maturity at the end of the
so-called Great War must be rivals for that position -- but my
students do have a general perception that they are being lied to by
those in authority, perhaps including their professors. Certainly the
popular culture they ingest frequently sends the message that
government, business, academe, and almost all institutions are engaged
in innumerable conspiracies to cover up the truth.
In fact, Americans are lied to often. But democracies perish when
faith and trust in the institutions of a civil society -- like
government and the press -- collapse. So I want to make a case to my
students that many of the misstatements they see are the result not of
evil cabals but rather of plain boneheadedness.
My undergraduates seem to get excited about participating in a
Sherlockian quest for error. Taking an example from blogs, which are
responsible for publicizing a number of goofs committed or repeated by
the mainstream media, I have students scour certain op-ed essays from
newspapers and do some fact checking. But here's the twist: In most of
the cases, I wrote the op-eds. I think when the students see my
eagerness to hear about my own errors, they learn a valuable lesson:
We all need to ponder why we make mistakes. And, of course, trying to
prove their professor wrong is an added attraction.
Once the students turn in their results, I offer them a typology of
the kinds of errors that I find myself making -- and usually catching,
I hope, before publication. (For graduate students, recommended
reading on this subject is David Hackett Fischer's Historians'
In my case, the sins that lead to error are all too glaring, foremost
among them laziness. Thanks to the familiar fallacy, I repeat without
checking "facts" that I have cited numerous times and assumed must be
true because of repetition (my own and that of others), and about
which no one has ever challenged me. Edison's disk is a case in point:
At some point in the past, when creating my lecture notes and slides,
I made the error and then repeated it often enough, with no one
correcting me, that it became an assumed verity. You must review
claims of fact, even those that you have been repeating for a long
I also suffer from the fitting fallacy, an error committed because it
seems to make complete sense -- that is, to fit into a set of other
facts. I've written a number of essays, and recently a book chapter,
on the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown in China. As a visual
historian, I focused on pictures of the event, including the famous
one of the lone man standing in front of the oncoming tank. I know
that, contrary to popular misconception, the man did not confront the
tank in the square, but blocks away. But when interviewed by a New
York Times reporter on the subject of famous news icons, I referred to
"the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square." I made
the same error that I had detected in others because it just seemed to
I'm also dogged by the transpositional fallacy, an error that occurs
when I inadvertently modify a fact and make it incorrect. I study
images of war and the military. I know, as a piece of trivia, that
Gen. George S. Patton owned pearl-handled guns. In an essay about
today's media coverage of Iraq, I wrote that Patton would have pulled
"his pearl-handed revolvers" on reporters. Seeing the sentence in
print, I had to reconsider: Patton, I recalled, possessed
pearl-handled .45 automatics. Had I made an error? It turns out that
the general had owned pearl-handled revolvers as well, but I should
have checked before submitting the essay.
Such are but a few of the reasons I make errors of fact, not regularly
but often enough to provoke eternal vigilance. What I hope my students
get out of analyzing their professor's foibles is that everyone
-- they, I, the authors of textbooks, the president, Nobel Prize
winners, and so on -- makes mistakes. The crucial questions are why
the mistakes are made, and what is to be done about them. Our duty as
teachers is not to produce students who will always get their facts
right, but to foster young thinkers who appreciate that facts are
indeed worth getting right, and who then take the most important step
of candid self-analysis when they get them wrong.
Which is what I did when my student notified me of my error about
Edison's phonograph: I sent the whole class an e-mail message
admitting my mistake, congratulating their astute classmate, and
wishing them a good summer. Not a few wrote back telling me that was
the first time they had ever had a teacher admit that he was wrong
I hope it's not the last.
David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's
Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs and an associate professor of
mass communication on the Baton Rouge campus.
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