Speaking of BS…

My father was a consummate BS artist.  He would tell stories about fellow soldiers pulling scams when he was in Germany in the 1950s or describe 45-minute solos taken by jazz musicians in the smoky nightclubs of Detroit. The exaggeration was part of the atmosphere. He could talk about going to the bakery at the Food Lion in Sarasota, and end up with a lengthy yarn which included fake southern accents and mishaps about Danish crates that fell off the delivery trucks.

See, right there, I’ve already lied.

What We Bloggers Do

Fellow blogger fivedotoh suggested a provocative question for today’s post:

How do you feel about people who always seem to exaggerate when relating a story? Do you equate embellishment with lying? As a blogger, when, if ever, is stretching the truth, other than when writing fiction, permissible?

Of course, I immediately thought of my dad. I also thought about a news story I read the other day about Duke University.  I was chewing over using it for this post but hesitating because maybe it would be too snarky. How about both?

My answer to this question is that there are Memoir Facts, Sarcasm/Snarky Facts, and then there are Fact Facts. As a blogger, I would feel entitled to use all three, yet in a way that the reader can clearly tell the difference.

I Only Lie 25%

At home, I occasionally find myself exaggerating, usually to win an argument with my spouse.  I will stop and correct myself, if I think it’s particularly unfair, although I’ve also been known to keep track and write down the number of indiscretions by the other person, which may win an argument but is not conducive to marital harmony. Now, if it’s a story about a particularly rude other person driving, everyone knows that you must exaggerate those stories because of the risk to your car and your very life. These are Memoir Facts which are highly likely to contain exaggeration. I went back and looked at some of my memoir blog posts, and I calculated.

In my October post about replacing our 17-year-old car, I noticed I said the van went through four sets of tires. Actually, it was only three. I said in the New Year’s post that my dying computer was taking five minutes to boot up, but it was probably only 3.5. What that means is that Memoir Facts are probably 25% exaggerated. One quarter more is within an allowable limit, if it’s a personal story.

Duke University 2018 incoming Masters candidates in Biostatistics. From Duke website.

Duke, I Can’t Understand You

Here’s my example of Snarky Facts.

Did you know that in the fall of 2018, Duke University opened a partner university with Wuhan University in Hubei, China? 266 students have taken them up on the opportunity to move between the Chinese and North Carolina campuses and will presumably benefit from the cultural cross-exposure.  This is why the email sent by the Director of Graduate Studies for the Biostatistics program was so puzzling.

Megan Neely told the students that some had been overheard speaking in Chinese loudly in the break room and that some faculty members had asked Neely to identify them (by photo). These faculty wanted to make sure those students were blackballed (my exaggeration, the professors actually said they wanted to “remember them if these students ever applied for an internship”). The Director implored students in the future to “commit to using English 100 percent of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.” Keep in mind that this was in the break room.

As you might imagine, the story quickly made it way around the world, leading to a petition signed by thousands of Duke students (2,000, that’s thousands isn’t it?), and Duke’s administrative response which was to ask the Director to step down. It’s pretty easy to get worked up by something jingoist and xenophobic, but it’s particularly galling when it’s wrapped up in a tight package of hypocrisy.

Guess how many of the graduate students in this program are from China? There are 54 students. 36 are Chinese. Two-thirds. Wouldn’t it be more logical for the other one-third of students and the faculty to learn Chinese, rather than to compel the majority to not speak Chinese? Was Duke not aware that so many of their students were from China? Particularly when they probably went to China to recruit them? Perhaps as part of their own Chinese university partnership? Is that an exaggeration? I can’t prove Duke went to China to recruit the Biostatistics students, but you can infer a conclusion.

I would also juxtapose the photo above showing the Chinese 2/3 of the student population (it’s only the 2021 class, if I added the photo of the 2020 class, you could count heads and verify my numbers) with this other photo. On the same website, there’s a section for why graduate students in Biostat would choose Duke, and here’s the accompanying photo.

Duke recruiting
Duke Biostat recruiting news release: Why Choose a Duke Master’s Degree in Biostatics?

Count heads. Six people in the photo. Four of them are not Chinese. It seems to me that Duke is exaggerating to such a degree that they’re fooling themselves about their own population of students.  I’ll leave them to untangle their own racist mess. But is it cheating to juxtapose the two pictures together for dramatic effect?  I haven’t asked the Director of Graduate Studies at Duke to tell her own side of the story. I haven’t been on the campus of Duke.

Snarky and Sarcastic Facts are a part of the blogging world. They are an exaggeration. When I talked about Marie Kondo two weeks ago or the Goop website, I picked out the true elements which fit my point the best and contrasted them on purpose. That is exaggeration. At least I know it.

Stubbornly Honest

Most of my blogs are designed to put a spotlight on  True Things, what comedian Lewis Black termed Fact Facts, but which are curious in themselves. I like to find weird parts of history to smash together (Greensleeves and Syphilis) or explain data that I find fascinating (Eat Your Vegetables).  If my premise is statistics–and it says so, right on my website–then I better use actual numbers.

The fact is I would say Honesty is my superpower. I’m  not saying I never took a pen from the office, but, generally speaking, I’m scrupulously honest. Foolishly honest. Honest to the point of being annoying. I think people should get it right. I worked in finance in corporate industry for 30 years and never fudged numbers.  Seriously! Of course, if the executive told me to, well, I didn’t want to get fired, but I always tried to put a footnote under anything misleading that explained where a distortion might be hiding.

One colleague Bill and I almost did get fired because a giant investment we were analyzing had a huge net negative NPV, and we stubbornly refused to invent numbers that showed it positive. And I wonder why I was never promoted to an Executive VP!  (We were right, it was a very costly investment in the end, so there! Here I sit, no longer working, and Bill is at another company. )

When it comes to the blogs, I would prefer to find Interesting Fact Facts. Real facts that come from scientific studies. Marie Kondo did say the thing about having only 30 books; I found her exact quotes and traced them back to interviews or videos where she said them. The Goop website did suggest that caviar would cure cancer.

Cartoon about Extrapolation
Cartoon by xkcd.com posted on funnybones.com

It’s a difficult environment right now when key leaders never tell the truth. Is that an exaggeration? If it is, it’s pretty slight. News stories chase comments around trying to find a fact in presidential tweets when there are none. It seems as if the political logic is, “If I’m always lying, you know it, so it’s like the truth.” But Truth and Falsehood are not a two-way street. If I tell the truth as far as you can verify, then it’s likely the next thing I say is probably the truth. However, if I’m lying or exaggerating most of the time, then you don’t know if the next thing I say is true. It’s like that famous logic problem: This sentence is false.

In my mind, if you can’t trust it, then it’s not as interesting. It’s much better to find those Fact Facts, but which have a distortion already in them. The scientist who said an octopus shared links to chemistry from outer space. The New York Times article with the tagline that parenting had become significantly more expensive which then showed a graph where that was only true for parents in the $250,000 tax bracket. I’d rather google down the rabbit hole and find a sapphire, or perhaps an alligator, than be so lazy as to invent one without even opening another tab in my browser.

OK, I lied. My Dad lived in Venice, Florida, a small town 20 minutes south of Sarasota. I figured you probably hadn’t heard of it, but you might have heard of Sarasota. Close enough. 25% off.

But, generally speaking, I really don’t need to make this BS up.


6 Replies to “Speaking of BS…”

  1. Good piece cuzzo! One thing to remember about “fact facts” is that if you’re just recalling them from memory, you’re probably wrong. Memory is absurdly faulty… so a lot of that BS is probably actually just poor recall. I think this episode of Revision History REALLY drives home this point nicely – http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/24-free-brian-williams
    BTW, after listening to it, it’s hard not be a little “memory nihilistic”.

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