“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”
Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.
One place that crap easily enters our writing is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.
The infamous boiling frog
You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:
- If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
- However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
- Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.
There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.
In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.
The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:
We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.
Those legendary earners from Yale
Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:
- In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
- Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
- The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.
This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.
“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”
The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.
The moral of this story
Only tell stories that you can verify based on:
- Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
- Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
- Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format