The Lifespan of a Fact

Friday, February 24, 2012


In 2005, The Believer Magazine paired a contributing writer with a fact checker.  Seven years later some version of their epic, contentious back and forth; first about facts, then about the genre of non-fiction and finally about the nature of truth itself – is a book.  Essayist John D’Agata and erstwhile fact-checker Jim Fingal speak with Brooke about The Lifespan of a Fact.

Comments [11]

James Kiester from Aloha, OR

My response is at .

Apr. 08 2012 02:39 PM

There is one completely unexamined assumption here -- the accuracy of the coroner's report. How did the coroner determine that the time was 8 seconds? If he used the equations he learned in high school physics, his result would be too small since Newton's equation ignore aerodynamic drag.

Also, as an engineer, I distrust integers like 8. Did the calculation come out to 8.235 and get rounded down? How about if it were 8.476? that, too, would round to 8. How about 8.512? THAT would round UP to 9.

To my mind, a computer programmer is far from an ideal fact-checker. Programmers are unaccustomed to dealing with the messy quantities resulting from real-worl observation and this particular fact-checker's lack of nuance in this regard was glaring.

Mar. 04 2012 12:57 PM

D'Agata was producing a stylized piece which put an interpretive gloss on the life and death of a young man. If D'Agata half-truths told a better story than "actual" truths while remaining, ultimately, accurate enough, then they should remain untouched.

Sometimes, to factcheck is to miss the point. For instance, when the facts are irrelevant and unknowable. I.e., the acceleration due to gravity of an object falling from such and such a height. That is knowable. But, it's irrelevant and immaterial whether it's 8 or 9 seconds. Likewise, claiming it was 90 seconds because the object levitated like a UFO would not need factchecking because not reader should interpret that as truthful.

If Erik Larson's account in his non-fiction "The Devil in the White City" (2003) was stylized to re-tell the story of D.H. Burnham and H.H. Holmes... does it a merit a seven-year dispute the publication of a separate midrashic commentary? No. Larson is a trained journalist, but no factchecking could tear apart his work for another reason: the characters are long dead and their lives only roughly accounted for in the journalism of the day. He had to improvise with plausible truths based on what reports were available, while infusing it with a dramatic narrative. Yet, Larson's eisegesis on Burnham and Holmes was a critical and commercial success. Nobody cares where how liberal was his interpretive gloss.

To me, it seems the conversation between D'Agata and Fingal was mutual mental masturbation. In other words, it's an experience better left private and unexplored.

I do wish them a critical and commercial success, however.

Mar. 01 2012 03:10 PM
marty siegrist from Michigan

Sorry, but I don't buy D'Agata's premise that facts can or should so easily be sacrificed for the sake of the argument or the narrative. In our current culture, there is already too much of that going on in politics, the blogosphere, and even, sadly enough, the news. If the essayist clearly states at the outset that these are not the facts, but are, instead, a hypothetical (an "alternate reality," if you will), that's one thing. But we as readers should be able to rely on the truth of the underlying facts.

Besides, if the facts and characters as they stood did not fit the structure of his essay, then it seems to me that it's his basic premise that's flawed. Throw it out and start over, or write a genuine work of fiction not purported to be an essay based in reality.

Feb. 27 2012 07:06 AM
Sylvia Shults from Pekin, Illinois

I caught this news story on the air on my way to work this afternoon. I was glad that I was able to listen to it all the way through, before I pulled into the library parking lot. I'm working on a nonfiction book myself (Fractured Spirits: Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital, coming from Dark Continents Publishing in December 2012). I've been struggling with how much to stretch the truths that I've been discovering, and if I should just report them straight up, or play with them a bit for good reading. So much of paranormal experience is just hearsay, and it is so very subjective. After listening to this story, I think I'm going to just write the best book I can, and not worry overmuch about getting conversations verbatim. I know what I'VE experienced in the writing of the book. I just have to convey that, and do my best to do right by the other folks who've shared their stories with me.

Feb. 26 2012 05:37 PM

My support is completely with Fingal.

If D'Agata wants to write fiction, fine. But if he is writing what is going to be published as non-fiction, then the truth matters. Facts matter. Given his lack of respect for either, D'Agata is probably one of those people who could lie and still pass a lie-detector.

Moreover, I'm appalled that his ego required him to publish a full account of his battle with Fingal, a man who was simply trying to do the job he was being paid to do.

I suppose it is too much to hope that D'Agata will never get to publish another so-called non-fiction piece. I will certainly make sure I never read anything by him that isn't clearly labeled as fiction.

Maybe D'Agata should apply for a job on Fox. He'd fit right in.

Apologies for the rant, but I am sick and tired of writers & so-called journalists of every stripe opining that facts don't matter, that truth doesn't exist, that everything is just a matter of opinion.

Feb. 26 2012 05:21 PM

Well, It's quite possible that the coroner was the one that was wrong about the 8 second fall. Your discussion didn't explore that.

There are ways he could get the calculation wrong, having nothing to do with the natural acceleration of gravity or the height of the building (though usually no one knows the height of buildings accurately)... He might have calculated the time a body would have traveled in ideal free fall, and being wrong about that gotten the calculation wrong by a fraction of a second. Rounding the calculation off might have moved the answer from 8.4 to 8.5 seconds which would have moved the reported duration to 9.

It seemed like both the adversaries were not talking about what they said they were too, but more the usual social power games "smart people" think are so smart, but miss the point entirely.

Feb. 26 2012 04:04 PM
Andrew Raybould from Irvington, ny

As someone who is concerned by the effectiveness with which the 'war on objectivity' is being waged, I was initially irritated by John D’Agata's self-serving justifications (what's wrong with modifying a 'quotation' to better serve the author's purpose? Haven't you been paying any attention to what passes for political debate these days?) In the end, though, I tend to agree with him on his narrow point. While I doubt he could be objective if he tried, so long as his essays are neither presented as nor taken as journalism or analysis, he is merely irrelevant, rather than being part of the problem. Taking his disregard for facts seriously opens the possibility for someone to micharacterize fact-checking as mere nitpicking.

Feb. 26 2012 12:41 PM
Lenore from Manhattan

The essay was based on some interesting connections about the number NINE. Then it turns out that the actual number of seconds was EIGHT.

Sorry, your essay is skunked. Throw it out--or use the "knowledge" another time, when something happens that actually is nine whatevers.

OTOH, the idiot from "Tales from the Crypt" was appalling.

Feb. 26 2012 10:57 AM
Michael from Manhattan

You left out the most damning fact until the very closing moments of the piece: D'Agata teaches creative writing. In other words, HE IS A FRUSTRATED NOVELIST. Case closed.

Feb. 25 2012 01:10 PM
Joe Strike from New York NY

Talk about synchronicity: I was reading my daily selection of comic strips while listening to this segment (I guess I was on two media at the time) and reached "Over the Hedge:"

"We can't be slaves to the truth. Right, Clint?"

Looks like R.J. and John D'Agata are on the same page...

Feb. 25 2012 08:02 AM

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