If it smells fake, it probably is

-January 31, 2017

The last few months, weeks, and days have seen what appears to be a rise in "fake news," "alternative facts," and other such nonsense. As engineers, we know there's no such thing as an alternative fact. For something to become a fact, it must be proven. We also know that in our world, even laws can't be changed. Go ahead, try to change Ohm's Law. You can't.

Can "fake news" happen in the technical press? Yes, and it's quite frequently sent. Fortunately, much of what is fake or insignificant news never makes it to this site nor the print publication that preceded it. That's not to say that PR and marketing people don't try, and they may succeed by getting unsuspecting editors to publicize their "news" or "new" product announcements, often by simply republishing press releases.

Case in point. Early in my almost 25 years as an editor, a company sent a press release (on paper at the time) for a "new" product. That company had been my most recent previous employer. The company would routinely send releases for their products, but not only new products. When a press release for the company's temperature transmitter--a signal-conditioning device that converts temperature from a sensor into a higher voltage or to a current--I knew the product had been on the market for several years. Even worse, I wrote the accompanying datasheet. Yet, I'd see the same announcement appear in other publications.

How do editors know when a new product is really new? While experience with a company's product line helps, there are other clues. For example, an undated press release is a sure giveaway, but some marketers are smart enough to always include a date and change it each time. Generally, if a company announces the release of a new product, it likely is new, though some will simply change model or part numbers without changing specs.

Another way editors spot questionable news is by how it's written. When a release is full of superlatives such as "fastest," or "lowest price" without backing them up with numbers, we know something isn't kosher. I often contact companies asking for prices, even just a base price. Some try to hedge the question by saying "it depends on the configuration."

Many companies make boasts and back them up. For example, I often see product releases that include tables with specs from a new product compared to those of competitors. The marketers know that the numbers better be right because they're easy to check--and check we do and so do the company's competitors and customers. You count on those specs so they'd better be right. Even so, specs can be called out differently. For example, if you've ever shopped for a DMM, you know that manufacturers will use different ways to describe accuracy, making comparison difficult but not impossible.

DMM manufacturers often use different ways to describe specs such as accuracy. For example, some will give a tolerance ±reading or ±full scale.

Then there's the "technical article" that so often accompanies a new product's release. Out of the blue, a PR person will send an article that's what we editors call a "poof" article. It describes a problem, and then "poof," problem solved by purchasing the company's new product.

Marketers and PR people think that just because an article doesn’t mention the product made by the author's company that the article isn’t a product pitch. They're wrong. I've rejected many such articles over the years. As my colleague Rich Quinnell put it so eloquently:

“Just as animals can smell fear, engineers smell marketing.”

I like to call these thinly veiled product pitches "Tempest articles." Borrowing from Shakespeare, who wrote in "The Tempest,"

What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish. He smells like a fish.

I adapt to say “What have we here? An article or a pitch? Publish or perish? A pitch. It smells like a pitch.”

That's not to say that we editors are perfect. Yes, I admit to once or twice accepting an article only to regret it later when the comments came in.

As editors, our job is to separate the real from the fake, the facts from the alternatives. We get it right, most of the time, far more frequently than …

Of course, there are plenty of fake components out there. See the links below.

Also see

Martin Rowe, Senior Technical Editor Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn page

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