Facts and fables

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In this week's NYT book review section, Jennifer B. McDonald offer a fascinating and well-crafted review of what sounds like an interesting book ("In the Details: ‘The Lifespan of a Fact,’ by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal"):

Under consideration in this essay is “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which is less a book than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting. In one corner is Jim Fingal, who as an intern for the literary magazine The Believer in 2005 (or it might have been 2003 — sources disagree) signed on for what he must have thought would be a straightforward task: fact-checking a 15-page article. In the other corner is D’Agata, who thought he had made a deal with The Believer to publish not just an article but a work of Art — an essay already rejected by Harper’s Magazine because of “factual inaccuracies” — that would find its way to print unmolested by any challenge to its veracity. “Lifespan” is the scorecard from their bout, a reproduction of their correspondence over the course of five (or was it seven?) years of fact-checking.

Ms. McDonald takes Fingal's side, ending her essay "Stay true, young Jim. Stay true." She indignantly cites example after example of D'Agata's Truthiness, adding comments like "If you fancy yourself a member of the reality-based community, here is where you might start feeling twitchy." She characterizes D'Agata's position this way:

His duty is not to accuracy, nor to Levi. His duty is to Truth. And when an artist works in service of Truth, fidelity to fact is irrelevant. So too is any sense of professional decency, it seems.

But I wonder whether Ms. McDonald has ever tried applying Fingal's naive skepticism in reading the paper she writes for, including the columnists and the science section and the sports section and the political reporting; or tried reading the allegedly factual parts of other mass media in a similar spirit. In these days of well-indexed web archives, it's not hard to find the same sorts of problems that Fingal did.

In an earlier post on some particularly careless science writing, I noted that

… to insist on the concept of "fact" in this context is a recipe for frustration. [...] I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

A journalism professor wrote in response:

It's probly worth bearing in mind, tho, that the comment's equally true of much of what happens in coverage of politics, economics and the like; see how long it takes you to find an assertion in the press that Nixon was impeached because of the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein. Or, on the other side of the fence, that the Iron Curtain collapsed on Ronald Reagan's watch. Both sorts of morality play are, in fact and implication, false, but — as you correctly note — they're lessons in how the world ought to work more than accounts of how it does.

For better or worse, that's a function of journalism; it transmits cultural norms and empirical data in roughly equal proportions. The risk is that the audience can't (or doesn't have any reason to) tell the difference.

However, I doubt that many of the writers involved would be nearly as passionate as D'Agata in defending their right to make stuff up. They prefer a clear (though false) narrative, a telling (though fictional) detail, an impressive (though invented) statistic — but their motivations are more likely to be laziness and shallow self-interest than devotion to Art, and I'd be surprised to hear any of them arguing that their fictions are truer than fact.

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28 Comments »

  1. Chris said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    The reverse issue plagues Wikipedia, which clearly states a "Verifiability, not truth" dictum. Critically this includes an "Undue Weight" clause against favoring minority views, even if those minority views are supported by evidence, as happened to historian Timothy Messer-Kruse. He tried to edit a factual error that has been repeated often wrt the Haymarket riot, bolstered by his own research of historical documents, only to have the edits reversed because most historians have repeated the error. He documented the issues in The Chronicle just a couple weeks ago. His Wikipedia nemesis stated the point succinctly: "Wikipedia is not 'truth,' Wikipedia is 'verifiability' of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that."

    Let me note that the Wiki talk page has a discussion of the Haymarket issue well worth reading.

  2. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    I went into reading the review fully expecting to agree with Fingal, McDonald, and presumably you; but ended up being put-off by McDonald's naivete about both the accessibility of truth and the artifice of all narrative. However, D'Agata struck me as transparently self-serving, far too self-important, as well as being something of a jerk.

    The telling bit, in my opinion, is D'Agata's refusal to allow any sort of disclaimer to appear preceding his essay. McDonald is mistaken to assert that the veracity of the essayists she lists is some sort of self-evident minimal standard–she allows some deviation from perfect truth–it's not clear to me that D'Agata drawing the line there instead of here is lying when here it's not. No, the real problem is essentially the whole problem of communication, in general. For it to work, there has to be some shared expectations. If D'Agata wants to draw the line somwhere different than is conventional, fine. He has a responsibility to let his readers know that this is the case because, d'uh, he's not being conventional. The conventional writers don't need to explain beforehand that they're conventional.

    But this has a lot of bearing on the underlying message of your post. The sorry reality is that readers of news stories, and especially science stories, have expectations that are quite distinct from those of the journalists who are writing these stories. This is a serious problem. And, as you say, it's mostly (but not entirely) unrelated to an aesthetic. It's expediency. Or motives even worse.

  3. Harold said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    Ironically, Chris's narrative is counterfactual: "Critically this includes an "Undue Weight" clause against favoring minority views, even if those minority views are supported by evidence, as happened to historian Timothy Messer-Kruse. He tried to edit a factual error that has been repeated often wrt the Haymarket riot, bolstered by his own research of historical documents, only to have the edits reversed because most historians have repeated the error."
    What happened was this. Three years ago the historian in question suggested a change but did not provide a citation to what wikipedia defines as a "reliable source" but instead cited a blog (his own blog) that required a subscription. He was then told: "You must provide reliable sources for your assertions to make changes along these lines to the article."
    He responded that his blog constituted reliable source because it cited primary sources, adding, "Perhaps its not 'reliable' sources you want but ideologically comfortable ones?"
    He was then requested: "Please read Wikipedia's policy concerning reliable sources. Blogs are not considered reliable sources. Also, according to our policy concerning 'undue weight' articles should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views. You should not delete information supported by the majority of sources to replace it with a minority view. Thank you."
    He responded: "Fine. I see I will have to fight these battles one at a time."). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Jimbo_Wales#History_recorded_by_historian_versus_history_recorded_by_machine
    And also the talk page for the wiki article in question.
    Then historian deleted statements in an article without providing a citation, and when asked for a citation instead referenced his own blog (not a published work). As a published historian, he is certainly a reliable authority, and arguably his blog would have been accepted as a source, had he followed Wikipedia procedures and explained himself rather than unilaterally deleting information and making provoking comments.
    However, he and his supporters are trying to develop a narrative that wikipedia has a liberal bias against certain historical views (which are the TRUTH) and that it enforces its biases through its arcane rules — rather the way certain conservative scholars view academia as a whole, I'd say.

  4. Harold said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    "The" not "Then" in second to last para.

    To me the narrative suggested by Chris aims to cast doubt on wikipedia, just as the aim of the historian is to cast doubt on the prevailing (since about 1980) view that those executed for conspiracy in the Haymarket affair were railroaded. He cannot prove that there was a conspiracy, but he says after examining trial transcripts he concludes that the trial was fairer than it has been portrayed by now-dead historians sympathetic to the demonstrators (at least one of whom was known for rather sloppy research habits). He also stresses that many of those executed had at one time or another advocated the use of violence and that therefore, in his opinion, their participation in a conspiracy was not implausible.

    His is now a revisionist view (prior to the 1980s it was the majority view, apparently). That does not necessarily make it right — or wrong. Other historians need to confirm his findings.

  5. HP said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    @Chris, Harold: But if Wikipedia becomes a repository of Truth, then where can I go when I want a quick overview of the current consensus regarding a given topic?

  6. CTubridy said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    Nixon wasn't impeached because of Woodward and Bernstein?

  7. Harold said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    As I understand it, Wikipedia is not designed to be a "repository of Truth." Neither are historians, since new information may frequently be uncovered. That said, wikipedia worked better than has been suggested in Chris's post since the first change he suggested were incorporated three years ago and subsequent to his Chronicle of Higher Education piece his subsequent ones were also incorporated. Not as the TRUTH but as the opinion of a recent scholar with a book in progress.

  8. Nick Lamb said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    A repository of "truth" seems like a ridiculous thing. At best it would be a repository of tamper-evident records of data samples. Their interpretation, into things a person could understand as "truth" would of necessity always be subjective measured against the highest standard.

    But in any case it always seems odd to blame Wikipedia for being what it is, an encyclopedia. Shouldn't the ranting about its reliance on secondary sources, and its consequent conservatism apply to the very concept of an encyclopedia, rather than specifically to the currently most popular? And shouldn't the "Wikipedia loop" (where an invented claim is inserted into WP, used without attribution by a journalist, and then the journalists work is cited in support of the claim) be blamed on the lazy journalists, not Wikipedia? (This too was possible with other encyclopedias, and has perhaps happened, but it was most easily detected in Wikipedia).

  9. Mark F. said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 11:51 pm

    The attempt to distinguish "facts" from "the truth" bothers me. I'll grant that "factual" and "true" aren't perfect synonyms, but I'm still not sure it can be meaningful to say of an assertion "it's not factual, but it's true."

  10. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 11:56 pm

    @Mark F: it's a kind of platonism. It imagines that there's some deeper artistic truth that is not captured by mere facts–those facts could even be misleading; thus the preference for invented ones.

    This seems pretty silly, but it has some intuitive appeal, I think. Pretty much all narrative reaches for some kind of deeper artistic truth in this sense, where facts are a means to an end, not an end to themselves, and they can be, and are, altered and elided and fabricated to serve this purpose. To some degree, we do this will all narratives.

  11. maidhc said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 12:15 am

    @CTubridy: Nixon wasn't impeached. He might have been impeached had he not resigned first.

  12. Dan Hemmens said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 8:12 am

    I'll grant that "factual" and "true" aren't perfect synonyms, but I'm still not sure it can be meaningful to say of an assertion "it's not factual, but it's true."

    Presumably if "factual" and "true" aren't perfect synonyms, it must be possible for something to be one without being the other. A fact could be misleading, something could be true without being a verifiable fact.

    If a parent says they love their children, what they are saying is probably *true*, but I'm not sure I'd call it a "fact" in any useful sense.

  13. LDavidH said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    But "fact" isn't the same as "verifiable fact", right? Take the existence or non-existence of aliens: one of them is a fact, whether or not we will ever verify it. So anything that is true is a fact, whether verified / verifiable or not. And the opposite is untrue, whether proven or not.

  14. Dan Hemmens said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    Two points.

    Firstly, I'd suggest that there's a big difference between being unveri*fied* and unveri*fiable*. The existence of aliens is perfectly verifiable, it's just that we have not yet got verification (and of course it would be far easier to verify the *existence* of aliens than their *non-existence*). This is quite different from a statement about feelings or emotions, which is necessarily subjective and so (I would argue) unverifiable.

    Secondly, I'd suggest that the existence of aliens is quite a good example of a situation where verification makes all the difference. It might be true that aliens exist, but I would argue that without verification it is not a *fact* that aliens exist, whether it is true or not.

    I suspect a lot of this depends on whether you think "fact" means something distinct from "true statement", which I personally think it does (although I suspect this gets into quite hazy territory). I would suggest that facts are probably a *subset* of true statements, but I don't think every true statement can be considered a fact.

  15. LDavidH said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    Hmm… but how do you define the difference?

  16. Dan Hemmens said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    With great difficulty. I think I would personally define a fact as being a true statement which (and I am aware that all of these terms are vague) stands by itself without reference to a wider context, and which is relatively uncontroversial and unambiguous (insofar as anything is).

    So for example I would say that it was a "fact" that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 (this is an unambiguously factual statement) but I wouldn't say it was a "fact" that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the First World War, because the causes of a war are far more complicated for any one thing to be said to have caused them, so while it might be a true statement, it isn't quite cut-and-dried enough to constitute a "fact".

    Or something. I couldn't really say I've got a neat answer, but I think there is a useful distinction here. Another way to look at it (albeit an overly simple one) is that I generally think of "facts" as being "clean" whereas "truth" can be messy.

    To use an incredibly self-referential example, I think you could say that it was *true* that there is a meaningful difference between facts and truth, but I don't think you could say it was a *fact*.

  17. SusanG said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    There is a so-called genre called "creative non-fiction" which is usually claimed by people writing memoirs. Since it's pretty hard to establish either the facts or the truth about one's early years, memoirists often claim that the creative impulse dramatizes what they believe actually happened. And of course, authorial license often prevails. But what the author here (have we forgotten him?) asserts is that a piece called an essay does not have to be literally, factually true. And furthermore, he seems to have influenced some students at the Iowa Writers Workshop. We'll find out eventually whether this poetic license version of essay writing has any legs.

  18. davep said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    A synthesized tempest in a teapot (perhaps)?

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/02/26/

  19. Joe Fineman said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

    "If one were obliged to write a history of the world, would it be better to record the true facts, so far as one could discover them, or would it be better simply to make the whole thing up? The answer is not so self-evident as it appears. The purpose of anyone who writes the history of any large epoch must necessarily be to impose a pattern on events, or at least to discover a pattern, and for that purpose a sound general theory, or even an instinctive grasp of probability, might be more useful than a mountain of learning. A history constructed imaginatively would never be right about any single event, but it might come nearer to essential truth than a mere compilation of names and dates in which no one statement was demonstrably untrue." — George Orwell, review (1946) of Winwood Reade's _Martyrdom of Man_ (1872)

  20. Rubrick said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 1:58 am

    "Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth is out there."

    [(myl) Almost:

    "We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies." (The Arts, Picasso Speaks, 1923)

    "A [mathematical] model is a lie that leads us to the truth." (Russell Gray, P.C. April 2004)

    But Picasso didn't try to convince us by doctoring photographs; and Russell Gray doesn't try to make his models fit better by faking data.]

  21. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    davep – the scalzi is good, as usual.

    There is a discussion New Journalism peeping out in this. Its early proponents – a talented lot – said they were quite clear about what they were doing and that their audiences knew that. In some cases, that was true. But we were assigned Mailer's "The Armies of The Night" at a prestigious eastern college in the 70's and in discussion, it rapidly became clear that half the class thought the work was true – not in the artistic, metaphoric sense, but in the plain old "Jimmy, did you break that window or not?" sense. Disheartening. I have never found bright lines that satisfied me, and I believe in Artistic Truth, but since that time I have followed the practice of holding the line against further descents into truthiness, even if I could not muster a first-class argument on the spot.

    It is of course true that journalism and reporting will unavoidably inclued cultural as well as factual information – what We, The Culture-Bearers believe. Wikipedia is necessarily part of that, but at least tries to be an honest broker. The only ones who don't see it are those who are embedded deeply within, as Harold apparently is. Because his narrative's different, and must be shouted out to the herd, so that we all know what's up.

    When you are on the outside of a Wkipedia assumption, you'll see it.

  22. Harold said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    What??? Embedded within wikipedia? My narrative is different? Different than what?

  23. Harold said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

    This is a pretty good article:
    http://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/wikipedia-and-the-role-of-the-non-expert/

    Except it should be noted that the wikipedia logs show that the professor's entire interaction with wikipedia amounted to 12 posts in 2009 and not multiple posts over several years as he has claimed on national public radio. (Note that the professor's own work is built on enumerating the error of others in a sort of annoying spirit of "gotcha".)

    Facts in journalistic essays ought to be accurate, in my opinion, and it would also be nice if nobody made mistakes, — though probably nothing would ever get written if that were the case. Ideally, too, people would quickly acknowledge and try to correct their own mistakes, when these were pointed out.

    There is one writer, Edmund Gosse, whose own literary essays contained such an enormous number of seemingly gratuitous errors that they became the subject of psychological speculation ever afterward: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1985/may/09/getting-it-wrong-an-exchange/?pagination=false

    Yet Gosse's own memoir, Father and Son, factual or not (and it seems to be factual enough), is an unforgettable literary masterpiece. It tells the story of his upbringing among the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren Sect (the same that Garrison Keeler's family belonged to, I believe) and his relationship with his deeply religious father, biologist, Philip Gosse, whose attempt to counter Darwin's theory of evolution met with widespread ridicule.

  24. Harold said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    More on errors by Ann Thwaite, biographer of Edmund Gosse http://books.google.com/books?id=CAW-OgPKsGoC&pg=PA147&lpg=PA147&dq=edmund+Gosse+errors+New+York+Review+of+Books&source=bl&ots=WZ9PwAtgKG&sig=wEwrlINT3BoOjqdZqUXLm7rH1BE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=FzRNT8HkA4LV0QGd-MnkAg&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=edmund%20Gosse%20errors%20New%20York%20Review%20of%20Books&f=false

  25. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    February 29, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    Harold: a misreading of me, perhaps my own lack of clarity. Your gratuitous addition that conservatives look at wikipedia a particular way, and disdain for that idea, THAT was the different narrative I was refering to. It added nothing to your argument, so I decided it was social signalling, and pushed back.

    As for the Timothy Messer-Kruse case, I tend to agree with your assessment that he might have gotten more satisfaction had he handled the situation differently, and give the nod to Wikipedia's handling, if I had to choose between the two. Yet I do not exonerate them entirely. Peoples is peoples, and some of them get prickly when challenged, and do not respond appropriately. What they consider a reliable source is sometimes impressionistic, based on their own biases. Quelle surprise, don't we all. In this instance the tone of their responses was clearly "You shall play by our rules," rather than "we want to get the most accurate information out there." As with all systems, their method of gatekeeping has already become more important than their original purpose. I work in a government bureaucracy, I'm pretty familiar with that thinking.

  26. Harold said,

    February 29, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    As far as conservatives – people who describe themselves as such have created their own Conservapedia to counter what they see as liberal misinformation on wikipedia.

    I did not say that Messer-Kruse "might have gotten more satisfaction" I said that he lied.

  27. Harold said,

    February 29, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    Lied, misremembered, misspoke, erred, created a misleading narrative. Take your pick.

  28. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 9:11 am

    Thank you for responding to my comment with tangentialities and giving evidence that my reading of "social signalling" was indeed spot on. I should have suspected such when you didn't get the nuances of the word "counterfactual" and misused it in your original comment.

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