When I hear someone say, “Mistakes happen,” or, worse, “Mistakes were made,” I cringe. It seems an abrogation of responsibility. A person did not make a mistake—somehow, miraculously, mistakes appeared, like fairies cavorting in the garden at dusk. Why not ’fess up and say, “I made a mistake”? There’s one instance when you don’t need to say that. It’s when you’re called upon to comment on another’s work product, as Tom Wolff describes in his article in this issue. Diplomatically, you might not want to call out the researcher and, in finger-pointing mode, say, “You made a mistake.” Might as well go the passive tense and leave it as “Mistakes happen,” even though you know someone else did, actually, make mistakes.
Erroneous information is rampant these days. By its very abundance, it can be amplified by repetition. It’s not necessarily purposely created fake news. It can be an honest mistake. A newspaper article gets a statistic wrong. Other reporters pick up the incorrect number and republish it. Even when the original reporter acknowledges his mistake, the faulty information becomes embedded in the public mind, and no amount of retractions seems to change the public’s opinion.
The consequences of mistakes vary. Mistaking teaspoons for tablespoons in a recipe could result in an inedible dish, but mistaking medication dosage could result in death. Search mistakes can have dire results or very minor ones. But searchers should always strive for mistake-free research.
I’ve ceased being astonished when friends and family members forward me a “scandalous” news item that simply isn’t true. If you see “You’ll never believe …,” “Not reported by mainstream media …,” or something similar in headlines or email subject lines, those are dead giveaways that it’s false information. Yet how many times can you say,” You made a mistake” before you’re persona non grata?
And even the most experienced information professional can retweet false information. Silvia Modig, president of the Finnish Library Association, admitted this mistake in her closing keynote speech at Internet Librarian International. It was a tweet she just really wanted to believe was true because it aligned with her political stance. Within a few minutes, her followers pointed out her mistake.
Making mistakes is not the same thing as learning new things. Years ago, there was a column in a magazine for pilots titled “I Learned About Flying From That.” The columnist started each column with a mistake that either he or a colleague had made and the lessons learned. Most online searchers can relate. We’ve entered a query that produced bad results because of how we phrased the query. We searched the wrong database. We misunderstood what our client wanted to know. We used a controlled vocabulary term in a fee-based service that didn’t describe well the answer we were after. We were looking for a specific article but failed to find it even though it was available online.
Mistakes don’t just happen. But you can learn from them. If you’re particularly observant, you might even be able to watch the fairies dancing in your garden.