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Luke: “Is the dark side stronger?”
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
—The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
In a post on his personal website about the election—this is not about the election—social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coins a useful term:
On the right, they have what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth…Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.”
Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientism of FiveThirtyEight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.
Factiness appeals to the ideas of the objective, empirical, and the disinterested apprehension of reality. When philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of “simulations”, he wasn’t talking as much about places like Disneyland as much as how Disneyland obscures the fact that everything else is a simulation. And throughout the campaign, what’s called the mainstream media has been desperate to pretend everything outside Trumpland is real politics.
Factiness. Boy, does that nail it on the tête.
First of all, authors, purge factiness from your repertoire. Stop, in other words, picking cherries. Instead of asking yourself whether you can “support” an assertion, ask yourself whether you believe it yourself. Start there. Do you find it to be true? As a tool of rhetoric, factiness suffuses our writing and speaking. I’m starting to think it’s poisoning us.
I also sincerely believe that factiness is not necessary to sell lots of books. Shall I supply well-chosen examples of authors who don’t employ factiness to prove it? Wait a second…
Yes, some of the biggest authors in business and popular science are factifiers of the highest order. Many others, however, are not. These authors don’t fling facts; they face them. They acknowledge uncertainty and help readers wrestle with it. They don’t try to turn the world upside-down just to get attention, firing isolated research findings and Tufte-esque graphs at us until we’re stunned into agreement.
The world has had enough factiness—and truthiness—for three consecutive Presidential terms. (Hey, if Bloomberg went for three as mayor of NYC, we all know what Trump’s thinking.)
As an acquiring book editor, you’re soaking in a factiness brine, swimming through cherry-picked facts that point toward one author’s truth without any real context. When you’re looking for a forest, all those trees start to look the same.
For example: When I was acquiring for Current, Penguin’s now-defunct popular science imprint, an agent submitted a book proposal positing a new fundamental law of nature.
You know, like the second law of thermodynamics. That sort of thing.
I won’t bother explaining this fundamental law. Doubleday published the book. Decide for yourself.
The point was, this submission didn’t come in over the transom. I received it from a major, reputable literary agent. My colleagues and I were smart, well-educated people. And we considered this thing for days. We read it and re-read it and shared it with scientist friends and we still had no idea whether or not it was valid.
All we knew for sure was that it was peppered with convincing facts and, if true, it would be fascinating.
In the end, I took the cynical approach over the skeptical one. Whether or not I was personally convinced, or even intrigued, by this new law of nature, I decided the guy didn’t have enough juice to convince others of a discovery so fundamental and yet relatively unacknowledged by his peers.
If a bunch of liberal elites were so vulnerable to factiness—and I’ll repeat that Doubleday published the book—how the heck is the rest of society supposed to protect itself from the barrage of “facts”?
I’ve always known we have truth problems, but now it strikes me that establishing truth is the existential threat of our time. Mark Zuckerberg may deny that fake news on Facebook affected the election but it’s undeniable that the internet and our society are interacting in unforeseen and frightening ways when it comes to agreeing on which way is up.
What’s more, while people have disagreed in the past, a society has never before been so blind to the nature and size of those disagreements.
Books are a source of truthiness and factiness. They are also stubbornly, wonderfully resistant to algorithmic filtering or being taken out of context. As large, rigid, coherent chunks of thinking, they present the perfect antidote to wherever Facebook and Twitter are taking us.
Whether you found yourself terrified or elated by the results of the election, consider the power of this tool, the book, and how you might use your next one to bring a little more actual truth into the world. One brick at a time, folks.