Friday, January 20, 2006

Getting to the truth

Imagine that, after an exam, your doctor gives you a surprising, perhaps alarming, report - but then adds: "Much of what I told you is true; but I made up some of it, to make the report more interesting."

Recently, the authors of at least two prominent books have admitted that they embellished the facts in their memoirs with some additional stories that never happened. They justify this for various reasons, essentially contending that such writing enhances the truth, rather than detracting from it. Some people, including Oprah apparently, think that adding some fiction to a nonfiction work is acceptable; others are appalled.

Wearing the hat of someone for whom credibility is an absolutely critical ingredient of high quality work - I feel these authors are way off base. For them, monetary greed has trumped honesty.

Nonfiction is nonfiction. Adding even a little bit of fiction to an account of otherwise accurate facts resembles adding just a few viruses to an otherwise pure glass of water. The water-drinker, or the book-reader, receives a contaminated product.

Defining nonfiction as something that includes only "facts" (as well as we can determine them), with no fantasy - that's not just an academic definition. It has practical importance, because readers interpret and use written products to make decisions and take action.

For example, suppose an author writes an autobiography which refers to an incident of abuse or violence, and perhaps mentions feelings of depression, followed by the author's decision to quit a job or give up a career. Readers might reasonably interpret this as a case study in which abuse/violence produced mental illness and set the author on an unfortunate path away from a promising career.

However, what if the abusive/violent incident never really happened? What if the author felt justified adding this fictional event because in his or her mind many people in similar situations did have depression caused by abuse, so it made the "story" more interesting? In this situation, readers no longer have a true case study. Rather, they have a fictional representation of what the author feels might represent the composite experience of "many people." There is certainly a place for composite views and fictional representations. However, when presented as true autobiographical case studies, the authors are lying to us. We may draw conclusions, or take action, in the "real" world, based on the faulty assumptions we have developed because of the authors' deceit.

Research regarding social issues and programs, human services and education, faces credibility tests all of the time. Standards must remain high. How do we set and meet standards for credibility, when we all know that even the "truth" is a product of values? I'll describe some of what we do in a future blog.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Not a Day - An Ongoing Journey for Justice

Today, we formally remember Martin Luther King and the principles for which he gave his life. When I think of Dr. King, social justice, nonviolence, and peace come immediately to mind. I feel inspired - my eyes opened by the wisdom he communicated. He spoke to all of us, offering insight, vision, hope.

I see a world where everyone takes on responsibility to improve the world, to improve the lives of others, to serve others. I see a world where respect for one another means appreciating diversity while at the same time engaging with others in the search for new understanding, recognizing that none of us frail creatures can yet supply all the answers for everything that humanity needs to know.

Dr. King destroyed social and legal barriers, and he raised the consciousness of all of us - Black, White, and others - enabling us to know that long-term traditions could change, that centuries old injustices could be righted. Change has certainly happened; but much remains to be done. Legalized segregation and exclusion in the United States disappeared decades ago, because of the advocacy of Martin Luther King and others who followed his lead; but disparities persist. Access to education, health care, housing, employment has not become equal for people of all races. Racial differences in test scores and graduation rates, for example, show clearly that we have a long way to go to transform our school systems into places that can meet the needs we have as a diverse society. Effective education that eliminates disparities is a moral imperative. It's also a practical reality that our increasingly diverse cities and regions cannot thrive unless we nurture the abilities of all of our residents.

This day has become a "holiday". Holiday status - alongside days like Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving - conveys the importance of the work of Dr. King. Unfortunately, the "three day weekend" mentality can let us lapse into forgetfulness. Let's encourage one another to do at least one thing on this day to learn about democracy, freedom, equality. Even if we plan a day of recreation or shopping, let's all first watch an MLK Day event, listen to a lecture, watch one of the many special news features on TV today. Let's try to learn at least one thing that we didn't know before, and think about how we might use this new knowledge during the year.

We must pay attention to the future, not just to the day. This is not simply a holiday to celebrate, then move on. Rather, we need to focus on how to turn King's dream into real life experiences for all of us everyday.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A New Year's Cosmopolitan Philosophy

Happy New Year!

New Year's Eve and Day bring on the opportunity to think about the future of this world. I was very happy to read a proposal for "Cosmopolitanism" by the philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in today's New York Times Magazine.

His essay reflects values that I have held for almost as long as I've been thinking about what it means to be an ethical human being in an increasingly interdependent world. I hope you share these values too; and I hope you have a chance to read his article.

Some of what he discusses points to the importance of forging connections - something I've written about elsewhere. A few quotes appear below.

"We should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement but because it will help us get used to one another - something we have a powerful need to do in this globalized era."

Again, the importance of connections, of associating with one another, seeing the differences and similarities among us a human beings - differences and similarities that may not be immediately identifiable due to the barriers and lenses of language, for example, but which we will recognize over time if we "get used to" one another.

"One distinctively cosmopolitan commitment is to pluralism. Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values. Another aspect of cosmopolitanism is what philosophers call fallibilism - the sense that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence."

Scientists know very well that all knowledge is tentative - ready to be revised by the next set of scientific findings. All of us need to develop this understanding.

"A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That's why cosmopolitans don't insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don't have all the answers. They're humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can't learn from them."

This can be a tough one. We absolutely must remain open to the possibility that the other person's way may be the right way (at least at this point in time). In many cases, we will modify our thinking and behavior. Yet, we must also be ready to open others' eyes, gently teach, and lead them to new ways, when we've sincerely considered all the available cultural perspectives and yet remain convinced that our insight offers the best option.

Peace and best wishes for 2006!