Facts, Fake News, and Fiction

15418395_10154138347379103_2426340092127106366_oThis past weekend, as the 2016 Nobel Prize winners received their awards on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s (actual) death in 1896, the western world continued to grapple with a “post-truth” political landscape that threatens the very foundations of the laureates’ achievements: evidence-based research and discovery. In his introductory remarks, Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, said, “The grim truth is that we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts, and knowledge.”

In my own explorations into the origins of the peace prize, I’ve been surprised at how often historical “facts” have been twisted and manipulated into false narratives, even in supposedly authoritative, academic texts. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s biographical entry on Nobel, which chronicles a bit of “fake news” concerning his (supposed) death in 1888:

The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with (his brother) Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel)

nyt-early-obitI’ve found versions of this story repeated throughout my research, though neither I nor many of the historians who have studied Nobel’s life have been able to document or verify the headline quoted above. I have, however, been able to verify that the false obituary did appear in newspapers around the world, including in The New York Times (see right). In many instances, Nobel biographers draw a direct correlation between the mistaken obituary and his development of the peace prize, despite the fact that eight years (and at least two prior drafts of his last will and testament, neither of which included a peace prize) separate the two events.

Once we have the “merchant of death” story in mind, however, we start looking for other facts and details that support this intriguing (and admittedly entertaining) narrative. This is called confirmation bias: starting with a hypothesis and seeking out evidence that supports it rather than remaining objective and drawing one’s conclusions from the evidence itself. Sadly, we expect to find an abundance of confirmation bias in politics, but it’s doubly distressing to see it infiltrating academic texts. As a false correlation like the one above is referenced and footnoted throughout subsequent works, it becomes harder and harder for us to discern the “fake news” from the facts. Key words such as “perhaps” from the original encyclopedia entry have a way of disappearing in subsequent retellings.

As someone writing a fictionalized account of the origins of the peace prize, I’m tempted by some of the more dramatic and entertaining options available, such as suggestions of a romantic relationship between the two protagonists, Nobel and Bertha von Suttner. Fiction, however, prefers to revel in complexities, not settle for simplistic explanations. By extension, historical fiction insists upon careful research and analysis, with the central narrative(s) supported by both evidence and logic.

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Taken from a plaster cast of his face, Alfred Nobel’s “death mask” rests atop engraved lines from his last will and testament.

This isn’t always possible, especially when theorizing about what drove and distracted major and minor figures in the 19th century. Like a good detective, the historical fiction writer looks for probable cause, not merely plausible cause. The latter may attract a wider readership (by suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, for example), but it borders on being irresponsible. When you consider that the creators of “fake news” are, in fact, peddling this same sort of fiction, you can begin to appreciate the rising anxiety levels of already anxious writers today.

Fiction posing as fact is not a new phenomenon, nor is the eager gullibility of the general public. Literature may invite us as readers to “suspend our disbelief” when entering imagined worlds of the past, but readers should do so sparingly, and then only temporarily. Above all, we should continue to question and explore the topics that interest us and influence our lives beyond the final pages.

Some might protest that homework ends in adulthood, but that’s hardly true in any civilized society. Many farmers continue to research and practice new ways to improve their crop yields just as doctors constantly research and practice new life-saving procedures. Likewise, our civic duty demands a critical attentiveness to the present-day news and, as a kind of “healthy skepticism,” a steadfast desire to verify the truth of that news. This is the ongoing and absolutely vital kind of education promoted by both Nobel and Suttner throughout their lifetimes. Without it, we remain vulnerable to all manner of future horrors and atrocities, as Suttner herself warned right up until her own death—just days before the violent outbreak of World War I.

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