13.7: Cosmos And Culture
12:10 pm
Fri April 27, 2012

Looking For The Line Between The Truth And A Lie

When I was in 9th grade, or so, we were having a debate in one of my classes. I can't remember what it was about. One of my close friends produced a statistic that decisively brought the debate to a close. His side won. The statistic was dispositive; the facts just spoke for themselves. Later on I asked him how it was he'd known that statistic, how he'd managed to have it at his finger tips. I was impressed by his reply.

"I just made it up," he said.

He was my punk-rock buddy; when we weren't absorbing the attitudes and music of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, we were reading Camus and Kafka. So how could I fail to be impressed by his irreverence, by his cleverness? But I was shocked, too. He had lied!

I was reminded of this recently with the publication of an unusual and wonderful new book The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. D'Agata is an essayist; Fingal is a much younger man who had been hired by The Believer as a fact-checker to review one of D'Agata's essays for the publication. Fingal ended up writing more than 100 pages worth of corrections on D'Agata's essay. D'Agata wasn't having any of it; he defended his facts and his choices. He gave up in the end, though; the version of the essay that appeared in The Believer was a fact-checked corrected version.

The Lifespan of a Fact is a book they put together after the dust settled; it's a reconstruction of the exchanges, or really, their battle, as they work their way line-by-line through the original essay. But what makes the book remarkable is that it is, really, a kind of staging — after the manner of Plato, as Lawrence Weschler observed to me in conversation — of an investigation into such questions as: What is a fact? What is the truth? When is it OK, for the sake of a good story, to simplify, or change, or color facts? Is it possible to tell a story without doing so? Are there different demands in different genres of so-called "nonfiction" writing, literary essays, for example, or straight reporting? Can one even draw a sharp line between fiction and nonfiction? Can there be objectivity?

Instead of taking up this issue directly here, I thought I'd return to the anecdote with which I began. You see, the thing is, I wasn't exactly accurate with the story. It all happened, exactly as I reported, yes. My friend really did trot out the statistics. But it wasn't in my class. I wasn't actually there. I heard about it afterwards. Indeed, I heard about it from the teacher of the other class, who I knew rather well and who was a very reliable source. It was she who'd asked him how he'd known the statistics; she later reported back to me his startling answer.

Did I lie? Was my writing fraudulent? What should a good fact-checker say? I am pulled in different directions.

Yes, I did misrepresent the facts. But I didn't misrepresent any of the facts that mattered for what I was talking about. My friend really did misuse statistics in this way. We really were existential-philosophy reading 14-year-old punk rockers, and we really were friends. I just simplified for the sake of the story and, in part, because I didn't want to have to explain why it is that a teacher was talking to me frankly about my friend, a fellow pupil.

(She was the mother of my girlfriend; we were friends; she admired my friend and told the story beaming with pride for what she felt was a good-spirited intellectual playfulness; I wasn't so sure.)

All of this, it seemed to me, was beside the point. The point, after all, was just that some people are willing to misrepresent the facts to win an argument or achieve an effect and that this is questionable.

And then there's this. Did I knowingly misrepresent the facts? Well, yes, but then, not exactly. It's not as though I thought to myself, "well, here's what happened; a bit cumbersome to report; I can make a better story if I just change the facts a little bit." What actually happened was that the improved story just sort of tripped off my tongue (or out of my typing fingers) as if it were the truth. But isn't this just as bad? Is a lazy indifference to the truth, is being seduced into believing one's own distortions, any better than an outright lie? How do we adjudicate these questions?

But now hang on and consider this: suppose I told you — I am not saying this, just suppose — that actually I am the one who won the debate by lying. I told the story in the way that I did not so much because I didn't want to incriminate myself (after all these years, who cares?) but because, if I were to admit that I were the one who had done the lying, then the story would have been about me when what I wanted to open up for consideration was something that has nothing to do with me. What would you say then? Would this tend to mitigate, in your mind, the importance of my misrepresentations, or would it make them worse?

We only make statements, report facts, describe events, in shared communicative contexts. And these come in many shapes, sizes and qualities, and each imports its own standards of accuracy, relevance and maybe even honesty.

I never felt lied-to by President Clinton when he insisted that he'd "never had sex with that woman." This is because, as a general rule, I don't expect people to be truthful about such things, at least not in that sort of public setting.

I confess to having a similarly tolerant attitude to Mike Daisey, the performance artist whose This American Life monologue about his visits to factories in China where Apple products are produced turned out to have had factual inaccuracies. Ira Glass, whose radio show This American Life works more as a story telling hour than a news show, was horrified to learn that one of his storytellers had taken factual liberties. His outrage seems inappropriate and silly to me.

There are different standards for different kinds of story telling, different kinds of nonfiction. And anyway, none of Daisey's errors have any bearing on the importance of his central assertion: that consumers should be aware of and care about the working conditions in China's high-technology factories. There's two sides to this question, of course. But they don't really turn on the sort of factual mistakes or distortions (which were they?) made by Daisey.

I saw a movie the other day; it began with a text screen: "This is based on a true story. Only the facts have been changed." Sometimes, it seems to me, that gets it about right.

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