August 13th, 2007

Let’s not sully that narrative with anything as picayune as facts

I just love the following statement by Evan Thomas, Newsweek editor, concerning his periodical’s reporting of the Duke rape case: The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.

Thomas actually was one of the writers who wrote early on that there was some doubt about the lacrosse students’ guilt. But, unfortunately, that didn’t stop him or his magazine from pushing a different “narrative,” one that made an assumption of a heady and titillating mix of rape and racism.

Thomas’s words about narrative vs. facts would be laughable—a sort of Onion-like parody—if they weren’t meant so seriously, and if they didn’t represent a perversion of what journalism is meant to be about. Thomas is actually describing the sensibility of fiction writers rather than of reporters. The former make up facts in order to get at a “greater truth.”

But everyone knows that fiction is an act of creative writing, whereas journalism is supposed to be its exact opposite, a discipline in which the facts should be paramount. “Narratives” help people make sense of and order facts and put them in perspective and context. They give those facts meaning, but they must never supercede them,

Of course, reporters are often merely reporting facts that others are feeding them. But investigative reporters are different; they are supposed to question those facts and do independent research to see whether they are corroborated. If not, the story—the “narrative”—shouldn’t hold together.

In addition, in criminal cases, the media is supposed to preserve the presumption of innocence as much as possible in all its reportage. But that isn’t very “sexy.” It’s the more sensational “narratives” that sell magazines and newspapers, and get people watching the cable networks.

We all maintain “narratives,” arrived at from our observations over time. This is as true of conservatives as it is of liberals. Most people have a tendency to filter out or discount facts that don’t agree with their already-formed worldview, which is why change of opinon is so difficult to accomplish.

I’ve written many words on the subject of how people end up changing their minds (see all the posts on the right sidebar in the category “A mind is a difficult thing to change”), and probably will write many more. But one thing necessary for such change to occur is a mind open to the assimilation of new facts, and flexible enough to change in response to an accretion of supporting facts.

How many supporting facts are enough to cause that “leap” into a new point of view? The tipping point is different for different people. Some hold so stubbornly to their belief systems that no amount of “steenking facts” can dislodge them. If a person can’t change even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (see the last part of this post for a good example) then his/her set of beliefs is impermeable to the challenge of facts, and resembles an act of faith rather than a matter of cognition.

I’m not meaning to knock faith, which inherently transcends the rational (Pascal’s very logical “wager”—which is based, paradoxically, on the idea that the existence of the deity cannot be decided by reason— notwithstanding). But politics should not be religion, and court cases cannot be decided on faith—or “narratives.”

[ADDENDUM: If you want to read a wonderful book that explains how the Left came to rely less and less on facts and more and more on narratives, please read this wonderfully lucid explanation.]

15 Responses to “Let’s not sully that narrative with anything as picayune as facts”

  1. Hyman Rosen Says:

    Someone posted a very funny counterexample to Pascal’s wager recently on Pharyngula. Say you get an e-mail from Nigeria promising you $1M in exchange for $1. Should you accept it? What if they offer $1B in exchange for 1¢? Pascal’s wager would have you believe that the more money the letter promises you, the more you should be willing to follow its terms!

  2. gcotharn Says:

    I would be interested in opinions(esp. of any psychologists!) about if any of the following has legitimacy:

    I think many on the left find their sense of self, and of righteousness, from being on the left. If they were to leave the left, they would feel dirty and immoral.

    I think they have bought into the leftist dogma w/o making a careful study of what they bought into. They sort of join the club, and buy into all the rules/dogma. I think, in some sense, they fear if one part of their unexamined dogma is incorrect, then large parts of the unexamined dogma may be incorrect. I suspect this is why many on the left are so slow – or completely unwilling – to change positions on even a single issue – even when a huge number of facts are lined up against their original position.

    I can change positions without feeling as if I am immoral or dirty. They cannot. Changing positions is, for me, a very moral thing. It makes me feel good about myself that I am willing to examine all sides of an issue. For a leftist, the thought of changing positions is terrifying.

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    Pascal’s wager would have you believe that the more money the letter promises you, the more you should be willing to follow its terms!

    pasca’s wager is based upon the assumption that you can’t find out what the payout will be. In scams, we already what the payout is and therefore there is no point wagering on it.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    Remember when they said Bush lied. A nice little routine for figuring out what the Left is up to is find what they accuse their enemies of, and then assume that this is what the Left had been doing, has been doing, or is currently doing.

    It’s not even about whether they are right or not. Obviously WMDs and whatever actually happened, but they never happen the way they say it happened.

    Putin and Amanie and Chavez are always quick to accuse the US of being just as evil as the US says they are. It is why Mexican leaders said the wall that was being considered for the southern border, was another Berlin Wall. Even as Mexicans send gestapo police to crush revolts down south.

  5. shirley Says:

    Why Rove resigned.

    By Carol D. Leonnig
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, August 14, 2007; Page A02

    Five reporters must reveal their government sources for stories they wrote about Steven J. Hatfill and investigators’ suspicions that the former Army scientist was behind the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

    and the small pox and bird flu scare? Yep. Now your catching on.

  6. Grimmy Says:

    That journalism is about truth and integrity driven objectivity is a modern fantasy that has never had any foundation in reality.

  7. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    “If one is not a Socialist when young, one has no heart; if not a Conservative when older, one has no brain” or something similar.

    The “get in touch with feelings” Left wants to stay young and heartful — even if means giving up using brains.

    There is also the TV based Unreal Perfection, in relationships as well as policies, where it is assumed that some solution exists with no costs or negative aspects.

    On facts changing minds, there is the inherent issue about intentions. Bad results, but based on good intentions, are more highly valued by the Left than good results without the good intentions (e.g. free markets don’t have the good intentions).

    On the Iraq war, how many people have given any quantity estimates for evaluation? Over many years I have (

  8. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    ***Hmm, using the left / right arrows caused the comment truncation.

    My quantities: less than 2500 Americans killed, Bush gets an “A”; less than 5000, “B”; less than 10,000 a “C”.

    Neo, I know you are an Iraqi Freedom supporter. Is there any number of US casualities which would lead you to say the war is not worth it?

    [The reviews of “Explaining Postmodernism” seem great! Have you read it?]

  9. Tatterdemalian Says:

    Dunno about her, but my judgement of a military strategy depends more on the number killed over a given period of time, instead of just a scorecard by itself.

    In OIF, we have a rate of about 3000 dead over a period of four years, which comes to about 750 dead per year. In peace time, the US has a violent death rate of around 16,000 per year, during the same period.

    When the losses among our troops reach 20,000 per year, then I’ll start demanding a new strategy.

  10. armchair pessimist Says:

    Didn’t Stalin’s secret police have this motto? Give us the man and we’ll make the case

    And credit where credit is due, the “narratives” they came up with and put into the mouths of the accused surpass in the scope of inventiveness anything the mediocrity Thomas could ever write– not if he had a case of Scotch to inspire him.

  11. Richard Aubrey Says:

    My father’s division was known for getting the job done in the ETO with (relatively) few casualties. Correcting for the larger number, longer time, and presumed replacements, his division’s KIA rate was fifteen times, being conservative, the KIA rate in Iraq.

    Obviously, a larger number of US casualties is desireable as a tool with which to change the policy.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    Tom Grey: there is no exact number of casualties. It’s the whole picture: the casualty rate vs. the importance of the fight. I take it for granted that most wars these days will be unlike the Gulf War (short and relatively easy) and more like the Iraq War (long and dirty).

    As for Explaining Postmodernism: yes, I have read it, and it’s excellent. Especially the second half.

  13. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    “The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.”

    How anyone can write this post and not mention Judith Miller is beyond me.

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    How anyone can write this post and not mention Judith Miller is beyond me.

    Because we care and you don’t. At least not about the same things.

  15. Religion and the Presidency | NeoConstant Says:

    […] religious who have irrational beliefs, or who make decisions based on what we might call faith. No, that’s an equal-opportunity (and a human) […]

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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