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.

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