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Friday, August 26, 2016

Facts and Stories

Hardly green cheese, eh?

As a reader and as a thinker, I am absolutely not an anti-fact person. Facts are important because truth is important. Living in the real world, as opposed to dreamy, wishful fantasy, demands recognition of reality, in all its complexity and all its myriad forms. And so, while we may have wanted nothing but fairy tales as children, as adult readers most of us mix the leaven of nonfiction into our reading.

If facts are going to appear in sentences, however, rather than in graphs or tables, I want something more than a mind-numbing recital of dates and numbers. I do not want an avalanche of nothing but facts. In fact (ahem!), when I suspect an author of trying to overwhelm rather than appeal to my critical faculties, I get downright annoyed.

Because under the avalanche, lost in the blizzard – what is the writer trying to hide? That’s what I ask myself when the fact storm gets too wild and woolly.

I’ve read a few books where a single unstated premise, when I plugged it in, was sufficient to undermine an argument otherwise well buttressed -- even overly so -- by a snowstorm of facts. (As a philosopher, I have learned to be very careful when reading historians, who are often tempted to tread lightly on argument and depend overmuch on fact storms.) Other authors, as becomes dismayingly apparent after several tedious chapters, try to cover so many bases that they are obviously trying to say everything that can be said on their subject (so as not to be wrong?), which boils down to saying nothing, once the snowdrifts are cleared away. Don’t waste my time!

Instead of a meaningless fact storm, I want at least one of the following: either a clear line of argument, leading to convincing conclusions or a compelling narrative. The nonfiction book that delivers both has knocked it out of the park.

My nonfiction reading these days is taking me far from home – up to Lake Superior, out to Arizona, and over to southern France -- and I've been reading some very good books. The most demanding in terms of argument and evidence is Tony Judt’s Socialism in Provence 1871-1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left, but the book is demanding not because the author resorts to blizzard tactics but because, on the contrary, he is very, very careful and clear about the claims he is making, the arguments he opposes, and the evidence for both sides. Painstakingly rigorous. It is exciting to be challenged by such a rigorous thinker, a writer so careful to avoid unsubstantiated generalization!

The temptation is great for me. No, not to leap into generalization but to pick up yet another book when I already have three or four others going. And so I could not resist looking into Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development, by Carol S. Dweck. 

Wow! Again, a writer perfectly clear about what has been said before on her subject and what she has discovered, experimentally, that contradicts and disproves long-held beliefs still, unfortunately, quite prevalent. Not to give away the whole show here, but Dweck’s studies show that learners’ self-concepts influence their motivation more than initial success and more than praise. Does the learner hold what Dweck calls an “entity” theory of intelligence or an “incremental” theory? The former is a belief that intelligence is a fixed trait, a belief shoring up "a system that requires a diet of easy successes.” On the other hand are learners who believe that intelligence can be cultivated and increased. These are more eager to learn, not simply to take an easy path where they can succeed and reaffirm to themselves that they are smart. Dweck calls the patterns that emerge in the face of setbacks “the helpless pattern” and “the mastery-oriented pattern.” You can probably guess which pattern connects to which theory of self, can’t you?

Superior Land and the Story of Grand Marais, Michigan, by Karen Brzys, does not strain my brain as much as the Tony Judt book, but like Judt’s and Dweck’s it is clearly written and presents its facts in accessible form, not in a blizzard. U.P. blizzards are best kept in meteorological form, as the author well knows! Very good stories emerge from well-chosen facts in this book.

Then there is A Beautiful, Cruel Country, Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce’s memoir of her life in southern Arizona, near la frontera, when she was a little cowgirl of three to five or six years old. In her book, the facts are not only very local (as are the facts presented by Judt and Brzys) but also quite personal. They are also recollected many years after the events described. Some could no doubt be verified; for others, we must either take the author’s word for her account or remain skeptics.

Curious to learn more about the author, I searched online and found this piece from a Tucson newspaper. Holy cow! “La Pistolera” – what a nickname! It seems the grown woman was every bit as feisty as the little three-year-old self-described in the memoir. Follow the link, read the article, and maybe you’ll want to read the book, too. (I found A Beautiful, Cruel Country still in print and have ordered a couple copies for the bookstore.) But a word of warning: There are some terrible, terrible events reported in the book and in the newspaper article. The book ends with the sad removal of the Indians from Arivaca, leaving the land silent in its sudden isolation, and even in the story of young Eva’s very early years there are many painful episodes – indigenous Indians, then called Papago and now identified as Tohono O'odham near starvation; the little girl whipped by her father, and such. The ensuing feud described in the newspaper, not part of the book, is also nightmare stuff.

What do you know? Whose story do you believe? What do you see as the facts of your world?

Beliefs, although not material objects independent of believers, are as real as microbes, the operation in the world of beliefs and microbes both dependent on so many other factors that we human beings are continually surprising one another. “X had such a healthy lifestyle, I thought she would live forever!” we say, or, “I thought I knew Y,” or, “Z had that election in the bag – how could he have lost?” The beliefs we hold about the economy influence the direction of the economy, as beliefs about the past influence the course the future will take.

Draw your own conclusions. But think carefully. And don't stop thinking when you've reached a conclusion, either.

Can you doubt that fall is coming in?


Carol Newman Cronin said...

I read fiction almost exclusively, but I love your thoughts about how facts should be delivered in non-fiction: not as a storm, but as the supporting cast of a carefully considered argument. Well said!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Carol. Coming back to respond to your comment gives me a chance to say more about Carol S. Dweck's book, SELF-THEORIES: THEIR ROLE IN MOTIVATION, PERSONALITY, AND DEVELOPMENT. The book was published in 2000 by Psychology Press, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, as part of a series called ESSAYS IN SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, so I'm talking about a book that is already 16 years old. And yet, how many of my readers know it, let alone have read it? I recommend the work as highly readable and very exciting. One of the author's findings is that "we can influence students' theories [about themselves and their intelligence]. Although students came to our study with their own theories, what we told them had a clear impact. This means that people's theories of intelligence are malleable." So students who initially believe their intelligence is fixed can come to believe they can increase it, and this means they will be willing to take on challenges they would otherwise avoid. They can learn to learn! The author carefully says that the studies do not show such changes in belief to be permanent, but the initial belief wasn't permanent, either. Human beings can learn, not simply through trial and error, but by coming to believe they have the capacity to grow.

Carol, I read a lot of fiction, too, and I don't know about you, but one of the features I value highly in a well-wrought short story or novel is believable characters, characters the author has convinced me are real. And that takes knowledge of the human heart, as well as skill in telling a story.