One of the worst things about writing a book is finding out you’re an idiot. Or at least, finding out that you’ve said things in it that aren’t in fact true.
When I was writing ‘The Great Acceleration’, one of my guiding principles was to stuff it as full of facts as possible. But a few of the apples I chucked into the barrel (of facts) turned out to be rotten. Apparently, this always happens, but it doesn’t make it any the less annoying.
Where did the mistakes come from? It turns out that writing a book - at least the way I did it - is a little bit like playing Chinese whispers with yourself: over the course of all the note-taking and writing and rewriting, you may end up with a sentence that doesn’t actually reflect what the original source says. I thought I’d caught all the instances of this when I went through the book for the footnotes, verifying every claim - but some escaped. On other occasions, it was my sources themselves that led me astray, though I have only myself to blame for not checking.
Anyway, here are the significant things I say in the first edition book that I now know to be wrong. Hopefully, they’ll be corrected by the time you read it - but if you spot anything else that needs to be fixed, please let me know.
Women’s menstrual cycles synchronise when sharing the same house (p1)
A real clanger on the very first page. When I was looking for examples of what entrainment was, all the articles I found mentioned this phenomenon, properly known as the McClintock effect. But if I’d just searched for the phenomenon itself, I’d have found that it’s a myth: a study in China in 2006 found no evidence for it. Some people are still convinced, though.
More girls are being born than boys, due to stress (p4 & p55)
Embarrassingly, the person to debunk this originally was… me. Back in 2012, when writing about gendercide for the Telegraph, I mentioned this theory (which Danny Dorling put forward in regard to the 1980s), but said that more recent demographic data appeared to disprove it. I then promptly forgot about that, and included an exaggerated version of his claims in my own book - I did include some qualifiers, but it's clear from re-reading it that they weren't enough, and that I put more weight on the idea than the evidence could bear. Apologies.
‘Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred’ (p15)
The most famous advert for the Pony Express - the title, even, of the definitive history of the company. And it turns out to be a fake - albeit one that’s more than a century old. (Or at least, there's no evidence that it ran at the time...)
‘At the start of 1846 there was only one experimental 40-mile [telegraph] line, laid between Washington and Baltimore by Samuel Morse.’ (p16)
A telegraph afficionado has got in touch to point out that Morse’s line was built in 1844. My version isn’t wrong - my date is for when the second line was built, and the explosive growth of the technology began. But I accept that the current wording is confusing, so I’ve changed it.
The idea that we have a reservoir of willpower (p49 and onwards)
One of of the best-established and most important findings in psychology is that willpower depletes and is replenished - but it may be wrong. An attempt to reproduce one of the foundational studies in the field found no evidence for it (part of a wider and utterly fascinating ‘reproducibility crisis’ in psychology). The news broke after the book had gone to press, and I haven’t changed for subsequent editions because it’s as yet unclear how many (if any) of the studies and findings in this field will end up having to be thrown out - and those I’ve cited seem pretty well-founded. But please consider the whole section to have an asterisk against it, pending further research.
Living in cities makes us happier (p74 & p278)
Living at faster speeds makes us happier, and living in cities makes us live at faster speeds. But it turns out that a substantial body of research - of which I was unaware until I happened on a news article about it a month or so ago - has found that living in cities per se does not make us happier, possibly because we’re more crowded together and possibly because of the grinding effects of the commute (about which I talk in chapter 8). Interestingly, it seems as though this effect lessens with IQ: the smarter you are, the better you can adapt to the shocks and novelties of city life, which may well end up contributing to the polarisation I talk about throughout the book. This is the rare mistake that I spotted myself, so I thought I’d better come clean before I receive any angry letters from urban demographers.
No act reached No 1 with their debut single between the chart’s launch in 1952 and Whigfield’s release of ‘Saturday Night’ in September 1994 (p132)
This is nonsense - there were loads. It was meant to read ‘no act went straight in at No 1’, as per this fascinating article.
The workplace is a factor in more than half of divorces (p78)
There's no doubt that overwork is now more of a factor than adultery, but it's not clear whether it's more than half - in fact, it probably isn't. Straightforward authorial error here, misreading (or misinterpreting) the relevant categories in the Office for National Statistics data release.
Many apologies for all of those. As mentioned, if you spot any other mistakes, or typos, please let me know.