Accuracy Is a Winner’s Policy
By Evan Hill
THE ELECTRICIAN wiring my new house worked swiftly and efficiently. But I asked him, “Couldn’t you put those outlets in closer to the floor? Six inches down, perhaps, where they won’t be so conspicuous?” He shook his head. “No,” he said, “it’s the code –the electrical code. They’ve got to be this height.” “State law?” I asked. He nodded. “Town, too.”
Next day I made a few telephone calls. Our state building code did not specify anything about the height of outlets. Our little town did not even have a building code. What the electrician referred to must have been just a local contractor’s custom. What difference did it make, six inches up or down? Not much, perhaps. Still the electrician had been inaccurate about a matter in which he should be expert, and so had undercut my trust in him. If he made an obvious error like that, that I could see what might be hidden behind the walls where I couldn’t check? And what about the accuracy of the bill?
Our safety and sense of well-being-our life, in fact-depend on the degree to which we can trust the accuracy of the people we deal with. For example: In July 1971 , a jumbo 747 jet was damaged on takeoff in San Francisco. Fortunately, no one was killed, although there were serious injuries. Later, the pilot testified that the flight dispatcher had told him his runway was 9500 feet long. Which it was; however, mostly because of construction work, only 8400 feet were available. This led to a miscalculated takeoff speed and the accident. Investigators thus came down to the use of incorrect takeoff speed resulting from a series of irregularities, tiny pieces of misinformation or lack of information. Everyday thousands of passengers stake their lives on the gamble that bits of information vital to their safety will be transmitted with absolute, scrupulous accuracy.
Rocket scientist Han Gruene recalled an incident during the 1950s when he was working on the Redstone Rocket. During an investigation following the failure of a Redstone mission an engineer discovered a mistake made unknowingly while he was working on the rocket and immediately reported his findings to Wernher von Barun, the head of the project. Instead of the expected reprimand von Barun rewarded hi-because, he said it was vital to know ust what had gone wrong.
The degree of accuracy maintained in the space program is illustrated by a statement von Barun once made: “The Saturn 5 has 5,600,000 parts. Even if we had a 99.9-percent reliability, there would still be 5600 defective parts. Ye the Apollo 4 mission flew a ‘textbook’ flight with only two anomalies occurring demonstrating a reliability of 99.9999 percent. If an average automobile with 13,000 parts were to have the same reliability it would have its first defective part in about 100 years.” Inaccurate or imprecise language can lead to diplomatic incidents or conceivably, even to war. The English diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson decried “the horrors of vagueness.” He wrote, “The essential to good diplomacy is precision. The main enemy is imprecision.”
The charge of the Light Brigade, that famous 19th-century disaster, has been attributed to vague and misunderstood order. Lord Raglan’s aide may have compounded the confusion when he transmitted the order to Lord Lucan and gestured vaguely as to which guns were to be attacked. As a result, the Light Brigade rode into the very center of the Russian army rather than against a redoubt where the Russians in disarray, were removing their guns. Whatever the reason of the 609 british cavalrymen who made the charge, only 198 returned.
In every endeavor precision counts. During the Olympics in Munich in 1972 two American athletes were disqualified because their coach had inaccurately interpreted the timetable and did not schedule his men’s arrival correctly. When my Uncle George remarked that a man “kept a dull ax” that was about as severe a condemnation as he could muster. And he applied that phrase to others besides woodsmen. I thought of Uncle George’s saying when I worked on a newspaper with a photographer who labeled a picture of the White Mountains of New Hampshire as the Canadian Rockies. We laughed when he said it was just an error. Some error-3000 miles. I suspected I’d have to check every picture identification and I was right.
Accuracy can never be overdone. A magazine editor once asked me if I knew a certain famous man who needed help with his writing. “Yes, I know him,” I said “But I’m not sure he knows me. I have visited with him at least six times and each time he needs to be introduced to me.” The editor exchanged a look with a colleague “we asked,” he said “because you ad told us you knew him, but when we telephoned hi he said he’d never heard of you. Now we understand.” And I got the assignment.
Few executives consider accuracy a special virtue-they just expect it. The makers of loose and exaggerated statements may seem to get more attention, but the habit of accuracy casts a long shadow ahead. Its users are trusted relied on and so become obvious candidates for responsibility. After all, if you have a choice between a guess man and a fact man, which do you trust?
Inaccuracy irritates all kinds of human relationships. The man at the party who doesn’t introduce us accurately perhaps doesn’t care very much about us. How many husband-wife tempers have been lost on a Sunday drive because the copilot said a vague “That way “ instead of “Next left” or “Straight ahead”? but accuracy in all our dealings sweetens relationships, averts misunderstandings and helps keep the peace.
How can we develop the art of accuracy? Here are some pointers.
1. Facts: do your homework. We live in a time of the instant opinion, the prefab argument and the pseudo-statistic. For example we all “know” that Catholics have more children per family than Protestants. Actually, in America, Baptists have the highest birth rate: the birth rate among Catholics is, in fact, only a negligible fraction higher than among Protestants. We all “know” that one divorce leads to another. The fact is that more than 95 percent of all persons divorced have been divorced only once and, typically, either marry again and stay married-or do not remarry. Facts are not always known or easy to interpret. But we must do our homework so we at least know what the facts are thought to be. Further, we must give proper weighting to all the relevant facts not “picking our cases” and ignoring those that weaken our position.
2. Precision: develop the reference-book habit. Accuracy is not just a matter of facts; it is also correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, measurement, context, relevance-in a word, precision. I learned this from my first city editor, who taught me that a door is not mean “there were no injuries”; that a man charged with burglary is not necessarily a burglar. As Dr. Richard Asher told aspiring medical writers in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Look up every-thing you quote. You may be certain there is a book called Alice in Wonderland, and that it mentions a ‘Mad Hatter’; that there is another book called Alice Through the Looking Glass; that Sherlock Holmes said ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’; and that in the Bible story of Adam and Eve, an apple is mentioned. In all five cases you are wrong.”
Finding what is true is not always easy. New York Times correspondent C.L. Sulzberger reported that once he played cards with Dwight D. Eisenhower, Averell Harriman Alfred Gruenther and Dan Kimball, then U.S. Secretary of the Navy, while they discussed the memoirs of James Forrestal first Secretary of Defense. They all had attended a meeting referred to in the book and each agreed that Forrestal’s account was wrong. “But when I asked what, then, was the true version, all promptly disagreed.”
Similar situations occur all the time. And to discover the facts then requires that we carefully weigh conflicting evidence and build one observation on another.
The first book cited was originally Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It refers only to the “Hatter,” never to the “Mad hatter.” The other Alice book is Through the Looking –Glass. The Holmes passage runs: “Excellent’ said I; ‘Elementary,’ said he.” Finally, Genesis mentions no apples.
This takes discipline, as well as a healthy skepticism. The accurate person will more often withhold his judgment than hazard a wild guess. He is more willing than most to say, honestly, “ I do not know.” At its best, accuracy is a painstaking caring patient and reasonable faculty of mind. And ultimately it is creative, too. For it not only looks up facts, it discovers them in the first place.