Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

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Error and Credibility

When you're reading non-fiction and come across a statement that you know to be wrong, how do you react? I find it makes me feel, almost literally, as if I'd been punched in the gut — and the more I'd been enjoying the book or article, the worse it feels.

I'm currently reading Malcom Gladwell's Outliers, and had been finding his argument very interesting and for the most part persuasive. I'm now in Chapter 5, where (among other things) he's telling the story of some newly arrived immigrants in late 19th Century New York: Louis and Regina Borgenicht, married a few years, with one small child and another on the way. Louis has been trying his hand at various things while observing life around him and trying to find an unmet need. On p. 141, he decides on clothing, and, wandering the streets, notebook in hand, notes a little girl rendered all the more cute by the apron she's wearing &mdash which is unlike anything he's seen in stores. He rushes home to his wife; they discuss it, and he goes out to buy fabric.
She began to sew. At midnight, she went to bed and Louis took up where she had left off. At dawn, she rose and began cutting buttonholes and adding buttons. By ten in the morning, the aprons were finished. Louis gathered them up over his arm and ventured out onto Hester Street.

"Children's aprons! Little girls' aprons! Colored ones, ten cents. White ones, fifteen cents! Little girls' aprons!"

By one o'clock, all forty were gone.

"Ma, we've got our business," he shouted out to Regina, after running all the way home from Hester St.
Then, on p, 145:
The day after Louis and Regina Borgenicht sold out their first lot of forty aprons, Louis made his way to H.B. Chiflin and Company.... He had in his hand his and Regina's life savings &mdash $125 &mdash and with that money, he bought enough cloth to make ten dozen aprons.
Insert needle-scratching-record sound effect here. You're not going to make a lot of money selling aprons for ten or fifteen cents a piece when you're paying a buck each for materials.

Obviously at least one of these sets of facts is wrong.* But the fact that Gladwell failed to notice this glaring error, that his editors failed to notice it either, honestly leaves me wondering whether I should have any confidence in any fact that he asserts. If he's going to put two mutually exclusive claims of fact within five pages of each other, where any reader who's not asleep can spot them, how careful can I assume he's been with other facts?

I was really enjoying this book up to then.

* The most innocent explanation I can think of is that he wrote dozen when he meant gross. Ten gross sold at an average price per unit of 12½ cents is $180 revenue on $120 cost of materials. If he had written gross, I'd have found that entirely believable. But now, with my trust in the author damaged, I'm dubious. They were able to make 40 units working heel-to-toe in something like 16 hours; let's assume they double their productivity and each work 12 hours a day, and sell out every day, that's 120 units a day, and 12 days to sell out those ten gross &mdash so that's $5/day net. Ok, at least that's consistent with the claim that this is a good business for them to have fallen into in light of other prices mentioned in their story ($8/month rent for a small flat; Louis making $1 to $2/day in other things he'd tried their first few weeks in America). So half an hour later I am, provisionally, willing to again extend my trust to the author and continue reading. But only provisionally &mdash and I'm seriously annoyed with him for having put me through this.
Tags: books
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