How do We Know What’s True?

Why Facts Are Never Neutral

“All good stories are true,” writes C.E. Laureano in her book, The Oath of the Brotherhood.

You might agree. Do you disagree?

Or, maybe you’ll ask for clarifiers. Like: What do you mean by “true”? What do you mean by “good”?

What makes stories true? What makes stories good?

Historians like to say they tell true stories. But are they always, or even usually, good? Novelists, if they’re good novelists, tell good stories. But are they true?

I’m playing with words. Yet words are what we often use to tell stories.

History is a discipline committed to evidence, analysis, and exposition. If there were some hypothetical Hippocratic Oath for historians, it would read: Dude, you gotta tell true stories.

But how true are the stories historians tell?

All of this is extremely important. We’re talking about representation. We’re talking about the past. And if we’re talking about the past, then we’re pointing at the present — and future — too.

Identity is wrapped up in telling stories. And all of this is tremendously important in an age of Fake News. Like, how do we separate truth from falsehood? How do we judge Tweets, Talking-Heads, and Political Pundits?

Here are some ways to think about the problem.

Story-Truth vs. Happening Truth

The difference between fact and fiction is slimmer than you might think. And sometimes fiction can be more true than fact.

And that’s ok. You don’t have to be a die hard postmodernist to recognize that fiction can evoke experience in a way that history can never touch. A good way to think about this is how novelist Tim O’Brien has put it. Story Truth vs. Happening Truth. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about his experience in the Vietnam War, has a short chapter where he lays out his meaning.

“The pictures get jumbled,” O’Brien writes of his experience of war, “you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”

Establishing an exact chronology of events — facts — can be tough. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes we have video recordings, transcripts, pictures. But none of those “facts” are neutral. We are always trying to square reality with how reality seems.

“I want you to feel what I felt,” O’Brien continues at another point in his novel. “I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

O’Brien relates that he was a soldier. He walked in the Quang Ngai Province during the war. He tells of being present at the death of a young Vietnamese soldier — how the experience made him feel as though he had killed the young man. Even though, technically, he didn’t kill the young man. “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present,” O’Brien writes. Stories help us enter the truth of experience — love, passion, pain, trauma.

Why does this matter? Telling stories are how we make sense of our lives. We all do it. So, when politicians say that something “feels” true, well, in a certain sense that is totally legitimate. Yet, the story-truth is not the whole truth. It’s one part of how we make sense of reality. But, reason, evidence, and rationality is another crucial part.

History, Memory, and Bias

Here’s a experiment I’ve done with my history students. It’s all about helping us recognize the way history, memory, bias, and experience are all necessary components to making informed decisions about reality.

(The exercise is not my own. I got it from Mary Karr’s book, The Art of Memoir, 2015.)

Let me set the scene. A majority of the students were freshman; many were taking their first college history course. I walked into class a few minutes late. The twenty-or-so students were sitting quietly.

It felt awkward.

I increased the awkwardness by fumbling with my phone, checking it several times, breathing a slight word of frustration. Before I began, I privately asked one student to film the first part of class on my IPad. I said it was for promotional purposes.

Don’t stop filming, I explained, whatever happens.

Usually I begin my courses by plunging into course themes, hopefully exciting them for the semester ahead.

Not this time.

I spoke about the course, but I was distracted. Suddenly, I received a phone call. (I set this up beforehand; it was part of the ruse). I told the class I had to take the call because my son was sick. The anonymous party on the phone was actually a grad student, but they didn’t know that. I responded into the phone that this was horrible news, but I couldn’t talk right now. A couple moments clicked by. Then: a knock at the door, the same grad student entered and said the registrar had made a mistake; we would all have to leave the room. He and I began to argue. I became more agitated. I started yelling at him. He exited the room, I followed behind.

A few beats later, we reentered class. I told the students this had all been a dramatic performance. My son was in perfect health. We didn’t have to leave the room. I wasn’t angry at the grad student. In fact, I stated, we had done this as a way of introducing the meaning of history.

The next phase of the exercise required them to “write what they think happened.” Ten minutes later, I asked several brave souls to share their account. Questions about fact arose: what did I say?; what did I do? Invariably, questions of causation arose: why was I angry?; was I a sympathetic character because they thought my son was ill?

As they shared their narratives the students grasped that facts are not neutral. Interpretation and causation are fundamental to narrating “what happened and why.”

We then worked up a preliminary definition of history, highlighting facts AND interpretation. The next class period we watched the recorded version from my IPad. I told them that history is NOT the video version. Getting the facts right is indeed crucial, I explained, but history is also a reconstruction of events that requires interpretation, memory, and perception. History is a combination of the material preserved (that is, the Archive) plus human imagination (that is, the mental processes of meaning making).

What is True, Then?

So, how do we know what’s true? I mean, I haven’t even dipped into epistemology, or the philosophies behind how we know things. (And then there’s Wittgenstein’s Poker, which I won’t even go into here…).

But the takeaways are this:

1. Both facts and experience are basic parts of how we tell stories. Sometimes facts square with experience; sometimes not. The point is recognizing that there can be a difference between how things seem and how they are. Don’t accept just one story of an event, especially when the story that’s being told simply confirms what you already believe.

2. Fiction and history are both true when they jive with human experience. When they tell us who we’ve been and who we want to be. But….and this is a big BUT…the story always needs to be open to new evidence, data, knowledge.

Think about my class experiment. The stories students made up about what was happening were true…until I gave them new knowledge — that the event was actually a ruse.

In an age when we all want confirmation for what we already believe, both history and fiction ask us to delve deeper into experience. And to push deeper into establishing the most reliable sources for how we know what we know.

So, the next time you click on that link, read the latest Tweet, or pick up that latest bestselling book, ask yourself: Is this true? How do we know? What story is being told and why? And who benefits?

Stephen Andes is associate professor of history at a large southern university.

Pop Culture is everywhere. And all of it has a history. It tells us who we are and who we want to be. My current project is Zorro.

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