Mar 182012

I’m a PBS nerd and I’m also a NPR nerd. I’m especially a “This American Life” nerd. And you know what’s happened on This American Life, right? You heard about their retraction of a story that was an adaptation of Mike Daisy’s stage show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”? Because there was stuff in it that wasn’t factual? Because there’s, like, a big difference between a theater piece and a work of journalism.

Now, I must tell you I have a bias against journalism. Or journalists, really. They may be very precise about The Facts, but that doesn’t make them very precise about The Truth, which is a different thing. The journalists I talk to tend to have a story in mind and they’re looking for facts that substantiate that story. And we all know by now that confirmation bias means that they’ll just ignore anything I tell them that doesn’t fit into their story. They’re interested in facts, not the truth. That’s my experience.

And I think The Truth is more important than The Facts. And I think what Mike Daisy gave us is The Truth.

My sister has this saying, “Close enough for jazz!” which she uses flippantly, like “Good enough for government work.” But also as in, it’s not about precision, it’s about meaning and relationships, ya know? You may fudge the facts in the service of the truth. Close enough for jazz.

Journalism is about facts. Art is about truth. I think the opposite of facts is lies. I think the opposite of truth is ignorance.

Of all disciplines, I think only science captures both facts and the truth, and science is incredibly slow and deep, the way evolution is slow and deep or the way plate tectonics are slow and deep. On Chris Hayes’ show, they talked about how “It’s much more complicated than that,” applies to Michael Moore and to the Kony video and to Daisy’s piece – to any reality-based art and to any activism.

And that’s a sentence I use over and over again on the blog and in my class – It’s much more complicated than that – because how can I convey in these media the real complexity of the science, particularly when people need not just the science itself but ALSO basic instruction in the nature of scientific inquiry, its shortcomings, its role as a process rather than an outcome… And by the time I get two sentences into that, people have stopped caring. They want truth, not facts.

What Mike Daisy tells us is that art’s about making people CARE in a way that straightforward fact can’t. And that’s activism too, which lies somewhere between journalism and art, right? He said

And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end – to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard.

I can’t help but feel a lot of sympathy with that point of view. Because he did make me care. He told me the truth… even if he fudged the facts. It’s not rocket science; hell it’s not even journalism. It’s art. The facts aren’t his job; the truth is.

(There’s a Venn diagram in here somewhere, waiting to be drawn – overlapping bits of truth and fact and caring, with journalism, art, science, and activism.)

(None of this applies, I should specify, to the times when he plain old lied to the producers at TAL. That’s just one human talking to another, that’s just his defensive fear that his story would be drained of its power if it were stretched and diluted with ordinary fact. That’s not art; that’s just human beings.)

You guys, I ALWAYS fictionalize my stories about other people’s sex lives. Part of that is to protect anonymity, but part of it is to make the story a better, clearer, more compelling illustration of the point I want to make. I leave out details, I speed up the narrative, I simplify the conflict. Human beings aren’t characters; you can’t tell a story about humans, only about characters. So I build characters out of fragments of humans, and I shape stories from fragments of their lives. Occasionally I take a painterly liberty with literal fact, interpreting to create a reality more real than the literal reality.

Storytelling is too powerful a pedagogical tool for me to abandon it simply because it demands the culling and processing of facts in service of the truth.

I struggle constantly, reaching for ways to make people care about the things I care about, make them understand what I understand. But mostly people can only be made to care about a few small things at a time. Science and the deep, slow truth of reality are too big for most people to care about most of the time.

And I am thinking about where a blog fits in the journalism/science/art/truth-ignorance/fact-lie web – particularly a blog written by an actual expert. You expect truth from me; you expect facts. But you only read when you care. The power of a blog is that it allows truth and facts to accumulate over multiple posts, yet when people link to my blog, they link to a specific post that moved them or enlightened them. How much should each individual post be truth, how much fact, how much science?

Anyway, I think it’s more complicated than that. But here, have this blog post. It’s close enough for jazz.

Emily Nagoski

  16 Responses to “close enough for jazz”

Comments (16)
  1. I really like the “close enough for jazz” analogy, and as someone who trained originally in creative nonfiction I have a lot of sympathy for the difference between “facts” and “truth.”

    But I do want to quibble about your assertion that science is the only discipline in which truth and facts are engaged simultaneously. As a trained historian, in my field use evidence (what happened, and human beings’ experience/description of what happened) to get at truths about the human condition, about the world. Confirmation bias happens in history, too, just like it happens in science and journalism. But I don’t believe science more than these other fields has the edge when it comes to facts + truth. I think we’re all practitioners with the tools of our profession which will be used more or less wisely by the individuals who wield them. I’ve seen a lot of irresponsible facts-and-truth obscuring journalism, and I’ve also seen a lot of irresponsible facts-and-truth obscuring science!

    • Does history not fall within the realm of social science? I generally assumed it did, but…

      • @emily … hmm, point taken, although in my experience it’s generally seen as part of the humanities. At my undergrad liberal arts college, for example, it was a humanities major not a department in the social sciences division.

    • “I do want to quibble about your assertion that science is the only discipline in which truth and facts are engaged simultaneously. As a trained historian…”

      This is an excellent point. The English word “science” has quite a narrow meaning, much narrower than the German equivalent Wissenschaft, which might more properly be translated as “knowledge-craft”. The narrow meaning of science in english leads to many silly arguments about whether such and such a discipline is science, or whether a particular statement is scientific or not when what really matters is whether it is true or not.

  2. Confirmation bias riddles the news. Every story I have been even tangentially associated with seems to become distorted (in large and small ways) to sell the story. Even if the story lasts only 2-3 days.

    The media have great power to select and, more importantly maybe, deselect witnesses.

  3. I don’t have much objection to people who SAY they’re fictionalizing things for certain purposes. I might rather they told their stories straight, but they certainly have a right to do as they like with their own thoughts and memories. But it’s quite different if you never even say so. Moreover, keeping careful track of the truth (with good notes and so forth) is not an easy discipline, and anyone who’s got the attitude that they can just change stuff a bit later is likely to be sloppy about it.

  4. “…I simplify the conflict.”

    Boo. Conflict makes the best part of any story. (off topic)

  5. There is a huge difference between streamlining a story to make it tellable and manufacturing whole characters and events while passing them off as a true story (which is what Daisey did). The former is just good writing; the latter is deception. I agree with everything you say about art and storytelling, but in any art form the artist and the audience have a mutual understanding that they are not dealing in facts.

    The reason that it’s so important to me to maintain a distinction between facts and stories is that facts are the basis on which I construct truth. I take the facts accessible to me and I weave them into some kind of meaningful truth. Other people’s stories may provide inspiration, but they do not create the foundation of my own understanding of truth the way facts do. If the facts are false, the truth I build on it may be false too, and I hate that. I know it’s inevitable: I won’t get the right facts all the time, and I accept it, but for someone to knowingly present falsehoods and tell me they’re facts… that’s one of the most unforgivable things, in my world. I respond very viscerally to the idea that someone I have trusted might be deliberately deceiving me, even for benign reasons. It’s as bad as someone deliberately striking me. Maybe I’m unusual in this, I don’t know. But to me it’s a big, big deal.

  6. I don’t see why he couldn’t have researched and told some of the stories he’d read about about people with chemical poisoning (for example), rather than flat out lied and claimed he met these people and watched their hands shake. He didn’t have to make it all about him. Hell, he could have gone to the area where those events happened and talked to real people.

    It’s one thing to tell anonymous anecdotes, or to tell stories about yourself. But he has been making people think that he has been giving them pure facts about a very serious topic. He may think it’s okay to fudge shit for the theater, but when you’re making serious allegations the way that he has been, that’s not okay. There’s a difference. He’s actually turned his arguments to crap by being outed as a liar.

  7. My problem with Mike Daisy’s account is that the situation in China is very complicated. Mike Daisy’s story makes it look like all Apple has to do is make Foxconn pay its employees more money and the problem is solved. His story demonizes Apple while only making the smallest mention that the reason these factories exist in the first place is America’s unfathomable appetite for cheap electronics. It is not merely Apple’s responsibility to make sure that Foxconn’s employees are treated fairly, but it is also our responsibility to support workers all over the world. By shopping at Walmart and other stores that have forced manufacturers to move abroad where labor costs are cheaper, you make Chinese sweatshops possible. By your shopping habits you are as responsible as the factory owner for the plight of the Chinese worker.

    Mike’s monologue also ignores the reality for labor in China. The truth is that the jobs are Foxconn are highly sought after because they pay well, better than most other jobs available to the Chinese today. China is a huge country and most of its people live in poverty working in farms. Getting a job in a factory is a great opportunity for most Chinese and the working conditions there beat working in a farm for a government stipend. China is decades if not a hundred years behind the West in labor rights and Apple cannot change that on its own, no matter if they bought each Foxconn employee a Tesla sports car tomorrow. Foxconn employs a few hundred thousand people. In a country of a billion people, that’s a minuscule drop in a bucket. If we really care about the fate of the Chinese worker, and all workers worldwide, we better get used to paying a lot more for our products. Realize that the second that through the best of intentions we increase the standard of living of the Chinese worker, those factories will move to another country with lower labor costs. What then happens to the Chinese factory worker which you claim to care so much about? US factory workers can tell you how that story ends. Its not pretty.

  8. “Close enough for jazz” isn’t mine; it’s actually a thing people say. Well, a thing musicians say. It’s a saying. Just FYI.

  9. I remember hearing some news a while back about a book about surviving the holocaust which was published as a real memoir but later exposed as a hoax. In one of the news stories I heard, the journalist cited the author as saying that while the book may not have been literally true, it was emotionally true, and still important.

    I couldn’t agree more. Stories that have emotional truth but not factual truth are important, and we have a word for them, as well as an entire section of library-space for them: Fiction.

    However, there’s no reason to believe that it’s more or less likely for the idea embedded in fiction to contain The Truth than an idea conveyed in facts.

  10. From what I’ve seen, he may be claiming ‘now’ that it is a theater piece, but he was selling it hard as ‘investigative journalism’ up until he got busted.

  11. “Storytelling is too powerful a pedagogical tool for me to abandon it simply because it demands the culling and processing of facts in service of the truth. ”

    We have always been at war with Eastasia.

  12. One advantage of autobiographical fiction over memoir is that you can change things with no justification needed other than “it makes a better story.” But you have to change things anyway, usually, since real life so seldom fits into a narrative arc.

    But really, this reminds me of the discussion of “deeper truth” from Small Gods which I don’t feel like digging out to look up.

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