Like many editors, I tend to be something of a cubicle dweller. Sure, I communicate with authors and colleagues through telephone calls, meetings both formal and informal, and seemingly continuous volleys of e-mails—and sure, every once in a while I actually make it out into the sunlight. But editing, at its core, is essentially a solitary pursuit, and I find that this can render me rather myopic with respect to the ways in which my skills might be atrophying, to bad habits I might be picking up, to careless language slippery-sloping its way beneath my radar, to my resistance to new ideas and ways of working.
But I received help from a somewhat unlikely source. While perusing the New Organon of Sir Francis Bacon (1561– 1626)—editors sometimes also have strange ideas of what constitutes fun—I stumbled across Bacon’s discussion of what he terms four “idols” of human thought. Bacon posits four classes of such idols— four classes of biases, tendencies, or mental limitations that impede scientific inquiry. I wondered (at first only idly) if these same sorts of impediments might impede my work as an editor. It seemed that they might. So, at the risk of oversimplifying or misapplying Bacon’s thought, I offer this brief summary of the four classes of impediments and, for each, suggest four questions or sets of questions that we, as editors, might ask ourselves from time to time, simply as a way of maintaining awareness of how the impediments might affect our work.
Idols of the Tribe. This first class comprises impediments innate in all human beings, including natural limitations on concentration, the tendency to believe that perceptions are trustworthy, and the tendency to be swayed by emotion. For Bacon, “the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it” (Bk I, Aphorism XLI).1
Because these impediments are innate, they can be difficult to perceive unless they are pointed out—sometimes all too frankly—by someone else. Also, the questions we could ask to ferret them out for ourselves tend to be obvious. But for what it’s worth, such questions might include
- How might my editing skills be atrophying? What training might I seek to develop these skills, my ability to concentrate, my perceptive abilities?
- What misperceptions might I have about a piece I am editing? About an author or client? About my abilities? How might I dispel these misperceptions?
- In what ways might my emotions be affecting my work?
- Do I look for support for what I believe or want to believe about my work, about something I am editing, about its author, or about myself—or do I tend to believe what I want to believe? If the latter, in what specific ways is this affecting my work?
Idols of the Cave. The second class comprises impediments that vary from person to person and that arise from one’s education, experiences, and current environment. Of these idols, Bacon writes that “everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences and impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like” (Bk I, Aphorism XLII).1
Indeed. The cubicle or the office might well have succeeded the den or the cave, but it’s tough to escape the pull of our education, experiences, and environment— things that so often define who we are. But these things can also limit our ability to perceive the larger world out there. So, a few questions to help remove the blinders:
- In what ways might I be entrenched in particular work habits or workflows? Are these habits or workflows helpful or merely comfortable?
- How might I better discern when to let go of a habit, attitude, or method of working on which I have already expended a lot of time and energy?
- How might I better anticipate the needs of authors, clients, or colleagues?
- How might I be allowing my education, experiences, or current environment to limit my work?
Idols of the Marketplace. The third class comprises impediments that arise from the inherent ambiguities of language and communication. In this regard, Bacon writes that “the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding” and that “words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies” (Bk I, Aphorism XLIII).1
To which editors everywhere might well reply, “Amen.” As editors, we are of course ever vigilant against the erosion of language standards, and we spend the lion’s share of our time wrestling unruly language into submission. But how much attention do we give to language as we communicate with authors, clients, and colleagues? We might well ask
- Am I allowing myself to be drawn into interpersonal conflict or politics?
- How might I focus more on tasks at hand than on conflict or politics?
- Am I working from a position of defensiveness? If so, what is its source?
- How might I slow down or step back to understand better what others are saying?
Idols of the Theater. The fourth class comprises impediments that arise from one’s uncritical acceptance of false or outmoded systems of thought. The going gets a little more slippery here; to illustrate his point, Bacon writes that “lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion” (Bk I, Aphorism XLIV).1
Come again? Here Bacon is referring to philosophic models or to scientific models based on either unquestioned or mistaken assumptions or on a few casual observations or a single correct insight;2 he especially targets those proffered by the Sophists and Empiricists.2 However, for the purposes of this discussion, these models might best be defined as models of work habits, workflows, or newly evolving models of editing and publishing practice. Because new tools and models—such as Wikis, text and data mining, Web mashups, open access, information commons, self-publishing, and print on demand—have received and continue to receive thorough coverage in the pages of Science Editor and in conference sessions, I simply offer the following:
- In what ways are my present work habits, work environment, and approaches dysfunctional or outmoded? How might I change them?
- How do my attachments to established models of scientific editing, publishing, and distribution hinder my openness to newly evolving ideas and models? What might be the origin of these attachments?
- What steps might I take to better assess newly evolving models?
- What steps might I take to prepare for sudden, dramatic changes in editing and publishing practice?
I know, I know. Many of those questions seem obvious—and as for the four classes of idols, well, does anyone these days really need that much granularity in life? Perhaps. But I’ve found it best to think of the four idols simply as a way to organize familiar questions so that I might access them more freely, a sort of mnemonic framework. Moreover, I’ve found that keeping in mind that the four idols describe essentially universal human impediments can take some of the sting out of the answers that might bubble up out of the murk.
Editors might keep in mind how the four idols operate in the minds of authors, clients, and colleagues; managers can be cognizant of how the idols might influence the work of those they manage. For editors, asking the questions provided here—or others like them—and remaining aware of the four idols is one way to bring home the Bacon.
- Bacon F. 1620. The new organon: or true direction concerning the interpretation of nature. [Internet] [cited 2009 Oct 25]. Available at: www.constitution.org/bacon/nov_org.htm.
- Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Francis Bacon (1561–1628). [Internet] [cited 2009 Oct 25]. Available at: www.iep.utm.edu/bacon/.
Philip Sefton is a senior manuscript editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).