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Facts & Fallacies by Chris Morgan and David Langford

Introduction to the Ebook

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Putting this book together in 1980 was a great deal of fun for two young authors, and we must admit that our approach was dreadfully light-hearted. Alas, regardless of their doom, the little victims play. In those primitive, cave-dwelling days there was no Snopes.com for quick and easy fact-checking, and more than one embarrassment crept through into the published text. The hubris of collecting 'definitive mistakes and misguided predictions' inevitably attracted Nemesis – a variation of the inexorable Muphry's Law [sic], as formulated by John Bangsund in the early 1990s:

(a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written;

(b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book;

(c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in [a] and [b], the greater the fault;

(d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

Society of Editors Newsletter (Australia), 1992

It must be confessed that the first edition of Facts & Fallacies cited what turned out to be a persistent hoax or urban myth about the US official (some say politician) who declared there was no more need for registration of patents, and gave a silly reason. In the late nineteenth century, according to the best-known version of this legend, the head of the US Patent Office advised President McKinley to close the office since 'everything that could be invented has been invented.' Just as an unsourced witticism is likely to be credited to Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, this story became attached to the unfortunate Charles Duell, who was indeed the head of the US Patent Office in 1899. Happily, Facts & Fallacies did not go so far as to name Duell, but some researchers seem to think it's all our fault anyway. President Ronald Reagan's speech-writers picked up the anecdote for a high-school address he gave in 1987, thus spreading it far more widely than this book, which – it must also be confessed – did not become a best-seller. Other sources given for the quotation include the Congressional Record of 1830 (false) and an unfunny but genuine Punch magazine squib from 1899 where a question about patents is answered with: 'Quite unnecessary, Sir. Everything that can be invented has been invented.' (Punch, 4 January 1899.) See also our chapter on Inventions.

In the blinding light of 2017 hindsight, a few such unwisely chosen quotations have been deleted or placed in context. No doubt there are more for you to find. By way of compensation for these rare cuts, every chapter of Facts & Fallacies has been expanded with at least one extra nugget not included in the 1981 and 1982 print editions. Look for these at the end of each chapter, introduced by the heading Bonus. The exception to this rule is Mathematics, which wasn't in the original book but is a whole bonus chapter split off from Science and much expanded with extra material.

David Langford, 2017

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