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Common Sources of Errors

There are a multitude of reasons errors occur. Below we discuss the origins of many errors researchers have encountered over the years. Some will be quite obvious to the reader, while others are somewhat obscure.

For details on common errors contained in many popular almanacs, encyclopedias, and other reference books, visit reference book errors.


Abbreviations

A common origin of research errors is the misinterpretation of U.S. Postal Service state abbreviations. Contrary to what some writer/researchers have reported, MI is not Minnesota, Mississippi, or Missouri; MO is not Montana, and AL is not Alaska! In nearly every case that Internet Accuracy Project has documented, the erroneous state data has continued to spread unchecked, creating a nightmare for future researchers.

This is one of the reasons we avoid the use of state abbreviations in entries within our common errors database.

Visit our complete list of official two-letter Postal Service state abbreviations.

The use and misinterpretation of other abbreviations, is yet another common source of errors. The fact that abbreviations often have different meanings in different parts of the world, provides further incentive to avoid their use on documents and in reference materials, whenever possible.


Blind acceptance of spell check corrections

With society's increasing reliance on spell checkers, there has been a noticeable escalation in the number of errors rooted in the blind acceptance of spell check corrections. Far too many people blindly accept correction from their spell check software while failing to recognize that they must differentiate between similar words. With homonyms, since both examples are valid words, your spell checker will not pick up the mistake.

In other cases, the "error" your spell checker has uncovered, may not be an error at all. They are particularly vulnerable to falsely correcting the spelling of some names, and towns. Many of the error corrections you'll find on this site are the result of a researcher blindly accepting an erroneous correction made by their spell checker regarding the spelling of a person's name, or the town of their birth or death.


Data entry errors

Anyone who's spent much time on a computer or typewriter has likely reversed numbers or letters while entering data. We're all human, so even in professional settings these mistakes regularly occur. While these errors are normally caught before publication, most major publishing houses have still managed to let simple typographical errors slip through on a regular basis. Typographical errors in novels are certainly a distraction and an irritant to the reader. But consider for a moment all those individuals who rely on reference books, almanacs, encyclopedias and other non-fiction works in their daily work. Unlike a publishing mistake found in a novel, errors found in almanacs, textbooks and reference books have a costly effect on the businesses, students, researchers and other individuals who rely on their accuracy.


Differing reference book formats

The source of a wide variety of errors is rooted in ambiguous and contradictory formats used to present data. Formats used to present information in almanacs, encyclopedias and other reference books, vary to such a degree that errors are sometimes introduced by researchers who misinterpret the data because of differing presentation of the info.

The following example pertains to actor Hume Cronyn.
As a result of his name being listed as "Hume (Blake) Cronyn" in one reference book, a researcher erroneously surmised that Blake was his real last name. This is somewhat understandable since some books place a person's maiden, or original name at birth, within parentheses or brackets between their first and last name, while others use the same method to indicate an individual's middle name. Consequently, you can now find multiple sources that incorrectly report "Blake" as Hume Cronyn's last name at birth.


Differing numeric date formats

Another common origin of errors is the reversal of dates and months as a result of an all-numeric date format. A great deal of confusion arises when numbers are used to represent the day, month and year, especially when the numbers representing them are 12 or under. This creates an ambiguity of the true date being conveyed; making it impossible to tell which format is being used.

Some view 6-11-54 as June 11th, 1954, while others see it as November 6th, 1954. Likewise, 12-2-33 may be February 12th, 1933, or become December 2nd, 1933 depending on your country of origin.

Researchers who fail to take this into account tend to perpetuate old errors, and sometimes create new ones.

That is why numbers are never used to represent months in entries within Internet Accuracy Project's online library. Months of the year are spelled out, and all dates are presented in a month, day, year format (January 1st, 2000), which is used throughout the site.


Old Style vs. New Style calendar format

Many factual discrepancies and inaccuracies exist in certain reference books as a result of a lack of uniformity in calendar format used. Deviations of 10, 11, and 12 days are not uncommon due to the reformation of the calendar, which took place beginning in 1582. Since precise dates are such an integral facet of this site, further explanation follows:
By the 1500s, the Old Style (O.S.) or Julian Calendar had begun to drift away from the proper correspondence with the seasons due to erroneous suppositions in the initial calendar formulation. Recognizing that this deviation would only worsen, Pope Gregory XIII set about to devise a more accurate system. With the assistance of astronomers, the New Style (N.S.) or Gregorian Calendar was introduced. To correct the inaccuracies of the Julian Calendar, the New Style Calendar designated that Wednesday, October 4th, 1582 would be followed by Thursday, October 15th, 1582.

The adoption of this new system was not universally concurrent, with many nations delaying its implementation several centuries. The differential between the New and Old Style calendars became 12 days in the 19th century, and 13 days in the 20th century.

Discrepancies between dates appearing at this site and other sources that took place during this transition are normally the result of differing calendar formats. The overwhelming majority of dates at Internet Accuracy Project are New Style, and those that are not, are so designated.


Divorce dates

Many sources offer contradictory dates of divorce because of a lack of uniformity in what they feel constitutes a "divorce date." For some individuals, a researcher may be able to find as many as 5 or 6 different reported divorce dates. This is usually due to the fact some dates are actually the date the divorce papers were filed. Others may be the date the individuals separated, or possibly the date of their initial divorce court appearance. On a number of occasions, when a celebrity has specifically addressed their divorce in an interview or their autobiography, the divorce date they've reported turned out to be the date of their initial separation, not the date the divorce was actually final. When divorce papers are filed in the latter part of the year, the divorce is often not final until the following year. This is how you end up with differing years of divorce. Just as a marriage is not complete until the bride and groom are "pronounced" man and wife, a divorce is not complete until the date it is final.

Dates of divorce offered in profiles here at Internet Accuracy Project are almost always the date the divorce in question was final.


Erroneous extrapolation of birth dates

One of the most common sources of inaccurate birth data is the extrapolation of an individual's birth year by simply subtracting the person's age from the current year. This method of determining a person's year of birth will only produce an accurate result if that individual has already celebrated their birthday in the current calendar year at the time the calculation is made.

Example:
In 2006, former actress J. Madison Wright died unexpectedly at the age of 21. A few sources thus extrapolated her year of birth as "1985." The only problem was, she died just a few days before her 22nd birthday. Consequently, if you're lacking that key piece of information and use this method, the end result will occasionally be faulty data.


Faulty source data
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Even if you have access to a wide range of marriage, census, military, court, birth and death records, this doesn't always guarantee one hundred percent accuracy. These documents occasionally have minor errors necessitating additional corroborative research. Recognize that all the research and data in the world is of little use if your supportive documentation is based upon flawed original source information.


Handwriting
1

Anyone who's ever tried to decipher a doctor's illegible handwriting on a prescription can empathize with researchers struggling to interpret the scrawl on an aged document. Before the computer, typewriter and printing press brought consistency to the written word, handwriting was the primary method of documenting most events in life. Public record keeping, personal documents, and nearly all other means of conveying detailed information, was thus subject to easy misinterpretation that is further exacerbated by a seemingly endless variety of handwriting styles used throughout history.


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Identical place names
2

One might imagine that an increased knowledge of geography would lead to fewer mistakes involving place names. Incredibly, the opposite is sometimes true, and can actually lead to the creation of additional errors.

If a researcher has no idea where Grand Rapids is, they'll be forced to do additional research and will learn that there are towns/cities by that name in several U.S. states -- including, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Those with a greater knowledge of geography can sometimes make the erroneous assumption that the town being referred to is Grand Rapids, Michigan, since it is the most widely-recognized of these.

Just about anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of geography can tell you that Miami is located in Florida. While that certainly is true, there are also towns with that same name in Indiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Most folks will correctly inform you that Minneapolis and St. Paul are located in Minnesota. This is another accurate assertion, but fails to communicate the fact that both Minneapolis and St. Paul are also towns located in Kansas.

Other examples:
Brooklyn, Mississippi
Brooklyn, Ohio
Brooklyn, Washington
Hollywood, Arkansas
Hollywood, Alabama
Hollywood, Florida
Hollywood, Georgia
Hollywood, Louisiana
Little Rock, Iowa
Little Rock, Mississippi
Philadelphia, Louisiana
Provo, South Dakota

Inadequate research
3

This is one of the most obvious sources of errors around. Millions sit down every day to complete homework or write a report with just a single source of information at their fingertips. Even the utilization of multiple sources doesn't guarantee complete accuracy. This subject is discussed on our home page, but bears repeating:
Far too many people use the number of hits received from a simple Google search to determine the validity of information. They theorize that the greater the number of hits, the more accurate the information must be. What they fail to take into account is that many hits are simply the same erroneous data repeated by different sources. In many cases, this data may have originated from the same original flawed source information.

Contrary to popular belief, the sum total of human knowledge is not available on the free, searchable Web. There are literally billions of pieces of useful information hidden away in libraries and private collections that have never appeared on the Net. Yet many mistakenly believe that data must be in error if a Web search returns little or nothing. Conversely, a majority of sites or reference books reporting the same data does not necessarily mean it's accurate.


Lies
4

An incredible number of errors can be traced back to a simple, straightforward lie. Some of the most respected individuals in the world have been known to lie in an attempt to advance or save their careers, curry favor, or out of simple vanity.

The need for eternal youth is no more prevalent than in the world of entertainment. Publicists, managers, agents, and even the celebrities themselves alter their ages (along with other personal data) with alarming frequency. As infuriating as these lies are for researchers, the end result is "only" wasted time. But when scientists falsify scientific research or entire studies that are later published in top medical journals, the end result can be far more devastating than the above example.

In recent years, an increasing number of top doctors and scientists have been caught fabricating research data to obtain millions of dollars in government grant money, or merely to enhance their standing in the academic community. While several of these cases have received significant attention in the press, the prevalence of celebrities lying about their age, or background, far exceeds the number of scientific misconduct cases.

The problem for journalists and researchers is exacerbated when there's little irrefutable evidence that directly contradicts the questionable assertion made by the individual in question. Yet, to blindly accept all data contained in government records, is to ignore the fact that typographical errors exist even in census, marriage, military, court, birth and death records.

We're all familiar with the fact that public figures sometimes lie in an attempt to preserve the illusion of youth and vitality. While less common, there are those who've claimed to be older than they actually were in order to enter military service, leave home, or to work at venues requiring entertainers to be of age.

Increasingly, executives at the upper echelons of the corporate world have found themselves in trouble with the law for lies made regarding the health of the companies they manage. A tad more benign are the escalating lies company officials sometimes tell regarding their education or business experience to speed their advancement or help secure a desired position within a company.


Manipulation of statistical data
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Even if statistical data is 100 percent accurate, a person or organization with a specific bias or political agenda may still be able to manipulate it.

Just because an increase in the divorce rate coincides with an increase in the number of television households, this does not mean television is to blame for escalating divorce rates. Yet, one could certainly present detailed statistical data that would appear to support such an assertion. Without altering factual statistics in any way, it's entirely possible to twist them in such a way as to support widely divergent positions.


Method of data conveyance
6

The use of a telephone to convey detailed information is prone to the introduction of far more errors than the written word. The receiver of the data will occasionally make assumptions regarding spelling, geography and other issues, allowing the introduction of errors that did not previously exist.

Over the years, poor eyesight has been blamed for more than a few inaccuracies. The majority of those who require the use of reading glasses, or squint to read small text, can attest to the ease with which an error can be inadvertently generated by misreading or misinterpreting written data.


Misinterpretation of footnotes
7

The very item meant to clarify, illuminate and offer source information to the reader, has actually been the root cause of a few biographical errors.

Example:
December 23, 1931[2]

Most readers will recognize the bracketed "2" as a footnote likely offering source information for the given date. But there have been cases where an uninformed reader would confuse the above footnote with alternative information (seeing the date as either December 23, 1931 or 1932). Thus, passing on to others, their erroneous belief that there is uncertainty in the validity of the year, when there is none.

This misinterpretation of footnotes is one of the main reasons for our use of an asterisk (*), as opposed to the more common bracketed superscript numbers, to designate footnotes throughout the Internet Accuracy Project site.


Publication date vs. actual date of event
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Another common source of research errors involves confusing the publication date of an article, with the date the event being covered actually occurred. On occasion, the publication of an article, and the event it covers, may actually take place on the same day. But this is not always the case.

Our researchers have encountered many cases where the root cause of an erroneous date of death was the mistaken belief that the publication date of an obituary was the actual date of death.


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Copyright © 2005-2012 INTERNET ACCURACY PROJECT. All rights reserved. All content, is the exclusive property of Internet Accuracy Project and may not be reproduced (on the Web, in print, or otherwise) without the express written permission of our organization. BY ACCESSING THIS SITE YOU ARE STATING THAT YOU AGREE TO BE BOUND BY OUR TERMS AND CONDITIONS regardless of whether you reside in the United States of America or not. Our Privacy Policy. This page was last updated January 1, 2012.




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