Issue 71 – August 2012


Another Word: Plausibility and Truth

There's a puzzle I don't know the answer to, but the more I look around for it, the more I see it. Most of the time, it's amusing. Sometimes it scares the crap out of me.

So, funny story. Back in 1998, I was at Clarion West. One of my classmates turned in a story about a woman who worked from home, writing up recipes for the local newspaper. The essential problem in the story was that the protagonist's dog kept digging up space-time wormholes. It was a light, comic piece, and one I remember fondly. But we were there for a workshop, and critics have to criticize. We came together for the morning critique, and our comments were very consistent. We all loved the wormhole dog, but no one was willing to believe in a woman supporting herself writing recipes.

I've known for as long as I can remember that the willing suspension of disbelief is something that science fiction and fantasy writers work for. Finding the details that make something feel not realistic—there's nothing that can make, for instance, a psychic-power inducing space fuel harvested from a planet-wide desert inhabited by massive sandworms into mimetic realism—but plausible. It's not truth that we're looking for, but the tricks to make something seem true.

I've come to understand that it's something mainstream and literary writers need to concern themselves with too. The thing I'm coming to see now, the one that moves me from amused to anxious, is that nonfiction writers, journalists, bloggers, and scientists (oh my God and scientists) have to worry about that too. Being true, it turns out, isn't enough, even when you're just trying to tell the truth.

The relationship between plausibility and truth is always a problem.

So, funny story. Given how much nonfiction I've read, I really haven't written much, but now and then the occasion arises. A few years back, a good friend of mine was guest of honor at the local convention, and I got to write her biography for the program book. I had a scheme for how to approach it that would be fun, but for it to work, I needed a bunch of trivia about her life and history, and I was running a little short. As I recall, I was writing it pretty late at night and pretty close to deadline. I could have called her, rousted her out of bed, and quizzed her about herself. Or I could go to Wikipedia.

I went to Wikipedia, and it had everything I needed for my project. I whipped up a nice little biographical essay that was, I hoped, amusing and informative and fun to read. One of our mutual friends read it at the convention and whooped with delight. Not because it was such a great piece and not because I'd gotten something egregiously wrong. It turned out that one of the little bits of light trivia I'd harvested from her online bio was a ringer. And in fact, it was a ringer that our mutual friend had planted in the article as a joke.

It's not the first time I've been gulled. It's not even the first time I've been gulled by a friend. But the fella in question wasn't laughing because I'd fallen for his trick. He was delighted because now that the false fact had been picked up, used, and put in print, the Wikipedia article could include a citation saying where the information had come from: me.

There are things that make a story seem real. Some of them happen inside the story itself. Concrete, specific details are more convincing than vague, abstract ones. Slightly surprising details are more convincing than expected ones, so a model with a zit on his earlobe seems more real than just a model. Other things exist outside the story. Things that are repeated are more believable, especially if they're repeated by more than one source (for example, a citation in Wikipedia). Things are more believable when they're presented by someone who seems not to have anything to gain by telling the story. Or when the folks listening already have a larger worldview that the story seems to bolster, so they’re predisposed to accept it.

But that's not about being true. That's about seeming true.

Most of us aren't testing the world around us. We're taking the word of people around us. We don't evaluate whether something is true by going out and putting our hands on it, because most of the time, that would be irrational, right? I don't even know from experience that it would be impossible to make a living writing recipes for a newspaper. I absolutely and unshakably believe it's impossible, but the source of that certainty isn't evidence. It's a decision I made about a narrative (this seems unlikely) that was echoed back to be by a bunch of different sources (my fellow critiquers) and fit into a larger story that I was already disposed to believe (newspapers don't pay well, especially for things that can't be put under copyright). I didn't call any newspapers or talk with anyone who puts together cookbooks. My time is a limited resource, and if I started tracking down and checking everything I came across and withholding judgment until I'd made my own investigations, I wouldn't be able to do the things I actually want to do. Like make dinner or have a job.

So instead of judging facts, most of the time, I judge stories about facts. So does everybody. We don't look for truth, because truth demands too much time and effort. We looks for plausibility, because it's what we have time for. We suspend our disbelief at the drop of a hat for any number of reasons—because the person telling the story is a journalist, because the information matches what we already thought was true, because it's a good story.

Most of the time, that's close enough.

So, not-so-funny story. I have a friend who ran an oil-and-gas company in New Mexico, so she worked with a lot of geologists and engineers, most of them men, and most with a profound politically conservative bent. There was one man in particular, a fella who'd been in the industry for decades. An educated man and a professional with a wealth of practical, hands-on experience. He believes that anthropogenic global warming was a myth, but he also sees the drought that is slowly killing the American Southwest. He sees the fire seasons getting worse and worse. He came to the conclusion that terrorists in the Middle East have invented a weather control device that they're using to destroy the United States.

And I can't laugh at this guy. I want to. I'd love to call him an idiot and a rube and someone who is so blinded by the sins of his profession that he can't handle the truth, and, oh my, do I think he is wrong about the weather-control thing. Only I can't.

He's using the same tools I am. He's comparing the stories that are presented to him, maybe telling a few of his own, just like we all do.

The difference between plausibility and truth is that truth is objective and hard to find, while plausibility is subjective and easy. When the oilman says he doesn't believe in global warming, what he's saying is that however much the scientists insist that the data proves it, he's heard some other story that's more compelling to him. I can say that the idea that humanity can spend the time since the Industrial Revolution actively changing the atmosphere of the planet without changing anything doesn't seem plausible to me. But neither one of us has easy access to the data or the expertise to interpret it for ourselves. Objective truth is difficult to come by, and even if you have it, what you can pass on to the next person is the story that you tell about it.

Stories—by which I mean novels, newspapers, the interpretation sections of scientific papers—aren't a vehicle for truth. The things that make a narrative convincing are technical issues, and they don't have anything to do with whether the picture they create of the world is true. The techniques are largely the same whether we're talking about a detail of someone's life in a program book biography, a light fiction piece about a dog digging up wormholes in the back yard, or whether our species is closing up our own ecological niche. In order for truth to be recognized as true, it has to be wrapped in plausibility. Just the same as lies.

And that scares the crap out of me.

Author profile

Daniel Abraham is a writer of genre fiction with a dozen books in print and over thirty published short stories. His work has been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo Awards and has been awarded the International Horror Guild Award. He also writes as MLN Hanover and (with Ty Franck) as James S. A. Corey. He lives in the American Southwest.

Share this page on: