Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Book Reviews: Facts vs. Truth

This past Sunday, as an almost incidental part of his sermon, Kevin expounded on the difference between Facts and Truth. It was an idea I found interesting enough at the time but was reminded of last night as I finished “The Death of Ivan Illych.” As many of you will recall, I asked for a list of books to read in various categories. From the “Cultural Studies or Business” category I selected "The Tipping Point", by Malcolm Gladwell. From the “Classic Fiction” category, I selected “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” I recently finished both of them (to be fair, one can both start and finish Ivan Ilych in one sitting). Although it is, on the surface, ridiculous to try to discuss/compare these two books, I think that in the context of “Facts vs. Truth” there is some insight to be gained.

The Tipping Point is a book full of facts. Many of these facts come in the form of statistics, others in the form of narrative. Those of you who know me well know that I really enjoy statistics and what we can learn from them. I guess I am a descendant of the Bill James/SABR school and enjoy the obvious selections such as Steven Levitt. Nonetheless, I found this book, while abundantly rich in fact, to be lacking in truth. In theory, The Tipping Point is designed to help the reader identify those people and concepts that they can use to make their idea/product “tip,” or become epidemically contagious. To be sure, Gladwell provides numerous examples of ideas & products that have tipped, and he explains the forces that helped those ideas tip. Fair enough. What I found lacking was any sense of how to make this happen on a go forward basis. It is easy to look at success and identify factors that contributed to that success. This is reasonable, and there is certainly much to be gained by learning from the success of others. But if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it, and all but the absolute worst ideas would tip. In other words, there is the fundamental problem of selection bias in his study. By studying only those stories that are successes, he selects out those that may have used all of the same techniques yet had a different outcome. Here is a book, an interesting book, which is full of fact and lacking in truth.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, on the other hand contains no fact, yet is rich in truth. Actually, this is the central idea with which Ivan Ilych struggles leading up to his death. Here are the facts of his life, as he sees them: He is a good man. Although Ivan greatly desires (and receives) power and the status associated with it, he never abuses this power (although he loves the idea that he could abuse it if he wanted to). In his official duties, Ivan is reasonable, dispassionate, and above all fair. He has all his life done that which was expected of him by those put in authority over him, and he expects others to behave in the same way. More than anything Ivan Ilych tries to maintain a life that is peaceful, lovely, and decorous. Here is the truth of Ivan Ilych’s life: His entire life he has never cared about anyone but himself. Although his official duties require him to make life-altering decisions regarding other people (and he makes these decisions well and fair), he does not care about these people in the least. Most definitely they are forgotten by the time he reaches his carriage to return home. He does not care about his wife, only that he has a wife, which is the expected and decorous thing to do. His wife feels much the same about him, as do his children. His friends are not friends at all- not he to them nor them to him. At his viewing they all try to escape in short order as to not miss their weekly game of bridge. Ivan does not have a single meaningful relationship in his life.

So this is the central debate of Ivan Ilych’s life. He thought, based on the facts, that he was living the right way. When confronted with the truth however, he sees that he is wrong. This is like an ice-water bath for him, waking him out of his stupor but also incredibly uncomfortable. So, how, if not the way he has known his whole life, is one to live?

How are we to live? Is this not the question we are all called to answer? I believe that it is. In this way, The Death of Ivan Ilych, although completely devoid of fact, is full of truth. The struggles and eventually death of a made up person spoke truth to me in a way that facts simply cannot. I suppose this is the nature of fiction in general, at least for me. I have learned much from, and grown close to, many people who, strictly speaking, don’t exist. And that’s a fact.

1 comment:

Aaron Helman said...

I read The Tipping Point (Blink, too) a while ago. I thought it was an interesting, but I definitely agree that it's lacking in application.

I am finding that the lack of definable principles (like in Gladwell's books) makes many business practices often more art than science.

And I guess that's kind of exciting.