Eyewitness accounts are always tricky, as a plethora of psychology experiments and historical records show. Lately, my facebook friends are reminding me of this with some of the politically-slanted reshares making the rounds. The more on-the-nose a piece is for a given political view, the more time I will spend googling its veracity. Items with strong bias are the least likely to pass even a cursory round of fact checking. I could save myself a lot of time by muting updates from people who hit the share button without considering whether something is likely to be true, but I think expanding my knowledge is never a waste.
The gist of the one that’s bugging me is that it’s an eyewitness account with some glaring factual errors. I’m all for adding the eyewitness perspective to history and to debates, but only if context and fact checking balance it out. The need for research is even stronger when the eyewitness did not keep records throughout his or her life. Given how unreliable eyewitnesses can be five minutes after seeing an accident, trying to write a coherent account decades later is going to be riddled with errors. This is even truer if the witness is trying to talk about politics and events from his or her childhood. I challenge you to think of a major national or world event that happened when you were, say, 12 years old. Now, go and find a few articles on said event and tell me just how many details you misunderstood because you were twelve and also because so many years have passed.
My sensitivity to the challenges of nonfiction do not come from writing workshops alone. I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to change what I intended to write in a history paper because that great parallel I intended to draw didn’t hold up when I went back and found the source I’d read three months or three years before.
I know I can be an unreliable narrator of important events in my own life. I tend to go to other people who were there at any given event to see if I can confirm the chronology and any details I’m afraid I may have got wrong. Usually the details I’ve gotten wrong are minor, but in a couple cases they’ve been major enough I had to scrap a draft and start over.
The internet would be a better place if people fact checked their own work and if people thought a bit harder before hitting the “like,” “share,” or “retweet” buttons. Wanting something to be true because it supports one’s bias and something actually being true are not always the same thing. We all know this, but it seems a minority of us are curious or cynical or obsessive enough to do the work of checking sources and statistics.
On a tangentially related note, I’m glad we’re well past the 2012 election. I found 2012 a bit wearying due to the usual slew of misrepresented statistics, offensive remarks, and general hoopla. The bombardment of information is the main reason it’s been so long since I last posted. Anything I attempted to post went something like this: RANT RANT RANT thoughtful comment RAGE factoid RANT why do politicians hate women’s rights RAGE. Between that and a lack of bloggable new things in my life, I elected not to post.