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Paul Buckingham

Ours Is Not to Reason Why — Or Is It?

Copyright: aniwhite / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: aniwhite / 123RF Stock Photo

You’re editing a biography of Lester Pearson, and you see a line that says, “It is a fitting coincidence that Pearson was born the same year another great Liberal leader, Wilfrid Laurier, took the Canadian helm.” You’re drawn to the interesting coincidence of dates and decide to look up the facts. You discover that Pearson was born in 1897, while Laurier took up office in 1896. Naturally, you mention this apparent discrepancy to the author, who might have meant that the two events occurred within 12 months of each other (which is true).

So far, so obvious.

Let’s look at another example. You’re a medical editor finding yourself with an article on a rare disease: “The test for this disease correctly identifies 99% of genuine cases. The patient tested positive, so we concluded that she was very likely to have the disease.” You happen to have a background in statistics, and you recognize that there’s a logical flaw: it’s impossible to conclude from the information given that the patient is very likely to have the disease.1

Maybe in this second situation you’ll still say something to the author. After all, as long as you’re polite, there can be no harm in bringing any kind of error to their attention. But if the author disagrees with you, how likely are you to push the point further? Presumably less likely than if the error were simply an error of fact, like the Lester Pearson example. You may feel you’re treading on the author’s toes, questioning their very ability to lay down their argument. You know you’re on delicate ground; your relationship with the author is too young for difficult conversations about content. We’re led to:

Question 1. Why do we treat errors of fact differently from errors of reasoning?

Let’s change tack a little. Many editing jobs are of the kind where the author pays you to edit a document before they submit it to a publisher. In that case, what happens to the text after you’ve finished your edit is entirely the author’s concern. But imagine yourself on the other side, being paid by the publisher to edit that same text. What now if you spot an error of reasoning? The publisher has a stake in this text: their name is going on it, and their reputation depends to an extent on readers viewing the writing as reliable, both factually and logically. It therefore seems reasonable to ask:

Question 2. Do we have a responsibility to alert the publisher we work for to any kind of error we haven’t been able to resolve with the author, whether an error of fact or of reasoning?

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I suspect each editor has to find their own answers — if the questions apply to their work in the first place. If you’ve already been on that journey, I’d be very interested to learn where you arrived, so to speak, and how you got there.

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Previous post from Paul Buckingham: A Formula for Mathematical Editing.

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1 The missing piece of information is how good the test is at correctly recognizing people who don’t have the disease. Suppose this rare disease affects 1 in 100,000 people. If the test is wrong for even a small percentage of non-affected people, say 1%, then in a test of 10 million people you’d expect 99,999 non-affected people to show positive. But only about 100 of the people in the test actually have the disease! Now we see the problem: many, many people who test positive are in fact fine. For further reading, see Bayes’ theorem.


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7 Comments on “Ours Is Not to Reason Why — Or Is It?”

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    Oh yes, it is our responsibility to reason why – whoever our client may be. Our role as editors is to help make the publication as good as it can be in content, accuracy, organization, presentation, and expression, and if we know that something is wrong in fact or in interpretation, we should tactfully point it out. By all means give the source for your correction or briefly explain your own expertise in the subject. Why be shy about it? If clients realize that their editors have high educational or professional qualifications, they will respect them – and the profession of editing – all the more. If you encounter the occasional obstinate author who won’t budge, there’s not much you can do, but at least you’ve tried. Most authors, however, will welcome the opportunity to get the text «right» before its published.

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      Sorry, «before it’s published.»

    • Paul Buckingham

      says:

      Thanks, Rosemary. I think we’re of the same mind, here. (I didn’t want to state my position firmly in the post, because I know other people have different views and I feel the debate is worthwhile.)

      Just to temper my stance: As much as I believe in the value of pointing out flaws in reasoning, I’ve always found doing so more difficult than bringing up errors of fact, if only because discussing logic takes more time and patience. It’s usually not as simple as showing the author a corroborating website, say.

      Thanks again—I appreciate your thoughts.

  • I struggle with a particular issue sometimes: in some situations, it’s difficult to fact check without appearing to take an ideological stance. I run into this on the topic of health therapies that are not supported by research. I have no problem checking, «Advocates of treatment X say it’s important to wear shoes with conductive soles to let charged ions stream out of your body and into the earth.» But when the author says, «treatment X is really effective against health problem Y,» we sometimes run into differences of opinion about what makes for satisfactory evidence and what sources we consider reliable. It can be difficult to draw the line between checking the facts and telling the publisher what to publish. I’m sure people run into the same problems with editing materials on politics, religion, and any topic where the author holds a view that’s contrary to the main stream.

    • Paul Buckingham

      says:

      I was very interested by your response, Eva. In editing mathematics and statistics, I’ve not had to struggle with ideological stance in the same way as you have. I think you should tell us more about it in a blog post. I’m sure there’s a lot we could learn from your experiences.

      • Glad you found that interesting, Paul. I’ll try to put together some more thoughts on this sometime, but unfortunately, I don’t have a solution.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Editors should always say what they see. Politely and tactfully is probably best, but that depends on a lot of factors including the relationship the editor has with the author.

    The role of editors is to be an outside reader; we are in effect the first audience for the text, and if we have a quibble, future readers might as well. The clients obviously don’t have to accept the comments, but it gives them ideas about things it might be helpful to consider.

    As an example, when I edited teachers’ guides, I regularly told the authors when I thought they were talking down to teachers or being condescending.

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