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May 18th, 2005

Real Prefaces

As mentioned in a couple of posts below, my view is that it isn’t required of an author, even a sincere author, that she believes everything she writes in a scholarly work. When I say that’s my view, do I mean I believe it? Well, I think it’s probably roughly true. Good enough for scholarship. If I had to wait for belief, I might not write anything. Since we reward people who don’t wait for belief, it doesn’t seem like the community of scholars doesn’t take belief to be a norm governing scholarly assertion.

But I do think in some contexts you should only say what you believe. Writing a travel guide, for instance, probably requires belief in each claim you write. So a preface paradox involving a travel guide would be more impressive to me than a preface paradox involving a scholarly work. So I decided to see if I could find a real life case of this. For better or worse, I only stock Lonely Planet guides. (I have to support businesses from the eastern suburbs you see!) And they basically don’t include anything like a prefatory comment saying there are mistakes.

Well, that’s a little misleading. They do have the following comments. First under the heading WARNING & REQUEST.

Things change – prices go up, schedules change, good places go bad and bad places go bankrupt – nothing stays the same. So, if you find things better or worse, recently opened or long since closed, please tell us and help make the next edition even more accurate and useful.

This does suggest there will be mistakes, but also implicates (at least) that all the mistakes are due to the world changing since the book was written. That is, there is at least an implicature that the book was correct at some time. (Perhaps the time of writing, not even necessarily the time of printing.) The only thing that would make me qualify this claim is on the next page.

Guidebooks are not intended to be used as if they provide a detailed set of infallible instructions.

But I think it is clear from the context that they are not saying some of their factual claims might be mistaken, but rather that the good tourist will choose their own plan of attacking the holiday, rather than following the book’s suggestions.

The statements from the authors at the start refer to the fact-checkers, but don’t make any claims that there are still mistakes left. (At least the ones I have to hand don’t – I don’t claim to have checked them all.)

So Lonely Planet books don’t go as far as Wittgenstein as saying that everything in the book is correct, but unless I’m missing something, they don’t have any claim to the effect they may include mistakes. This is all to the good, because they don’t have one of the excuses scholars have for making such claims.

I’d be interested to know if other travel guides are as immodest. (If they are not I’ll take that as another sign I should stick with the Australian books!)

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “Real Prefaces”

  1. Luka Yovetich says:

    Lonley Planet’s good. But you should really take a look at the TimeOut guides, too. They’re fantastic!

  2. jon kvanvig says:

    Brian, this sentence is telling:
    “So, if you find things better or worse, recently opened or long since closed, please tell us and help make the next edition even more accurate and useful.”

    If “find” is factive, and the book includes recommendations, the “better or worse” part is an admission they might be wrong (noncognitivism aside). More telling, though, is the phrase “long since closed”. That strikes me as an obvious admission that their book may be in need of correction: if some mentioned place of interest were long since closed, the natural reading of that is that the present edition is out of date and easily may have been even at the time of printing. Thus, it may contain errors that they’d appreciate being informed about. No?

  3. Brian Weatherson says:

    I think it’s obvious that there will be some inaccuracies in the printed version – some prices etc change between writing and printing. That’s inevitable given non-zero inflation and non-instantaneous printing. It’s made more complicated by the way travel guides are written, because the date of writing for any passage is never crystal clear. Sometimes it might be many years before printing. New editions often just are touch-ups to old editions, so a particular passage may not have been relooked at for several years. Long enough that in, say, restaurant years it counts as long-since closed. (Restaurant years are like dog years but much shorter.)

    But I don’t see anything there that suggests modesty about whether anything they wrote was wrong at the time of writing.

  4. djc says:

    Try this (I presume that the same standards apply to e.g. technical books and books on birding):

    http://print.google.com/print?ie=UTF-8&q=%22mistakes+in+this+book%22&btnG=Search