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Fact free zone

01/24/06 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) After listening to the uproar over a recent best seller, commentator Bill Shutkin reflects on the consequences of sacrificing facts for dramatic effect.

(SHUTKIN) I was recently given a copy of James Frey's best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. No sooner had I started it than reports began to surface about Frey's alleged fabrication of many key facts in his story. Since those early charges, Frey's all but confessed to playing fast and loose with the truth in his supposedly non-fiction account of violence, addiction and recovery.

Nevertheless, Frey and his publisher are defending the memoir, as is Oprah Winfrey, who selected it for her book club last fall. Acknowledging the fakery, Winfrey has stated publicly she still regards it as a must-read.

The facts, it seems, aren't as important as an entertaining narrative, something moving or dramatic.

But the publishing world isn't the only place where facts are vulnerable. Attend any planning meeting on a controversial issue and chances are good you'll find yourself entering what I call a "Fact Free Zone." Fact Free Zones are places where certain irrefutable principles or realities - the laws of physics, perhaps, or economic facts such as skyrocketing housing costs - fall prey to the whims and passions of people determined to deny them.

Fact Free Zones are what happens when planning officials decline to enforce high standards of behavior in public meetings and when individuals, upon setting foot in those meetings, fail to own up to their civic responsibility to engage their fellow citizens respectfully and with a curious mind in discussions about important public policy choices.

Much like Frey's memoir, Fact Free Zones depend on compelling narratives, but rather than having one author, these stories have many. They're the stories people tell themselves that are immune to empirical data and alternative views. They're mental models clad in steel, helmet-sized echo chambers that reinforce people's comforting myths and misperceptions.

Like the idea that low-income housing will make communities less safe, or that gated neighborhoods will make them safer. Or that an aging population is not siphoning New England of the brains and bodies needed to sustain it, with almost a quarter of the region's 20 to 34 year olds having fled in the 1990s. Or how about the notion that a warming climate is somebody else's business, not something local communities and each of us as individuals need to worry about.

Now I'm no objectivist; I believe that facts are invariably colored by one's values and experience, and that claims to truth need to be evaluated with a skeptical eye. I'm more of a pragmatist in the mold of Vermonter John Dewey. Truth, Dewey held, is contingent, not transcendent. But just because a fact might not be universally true doesn't mean it can be dismissed.

We who live here are the principal authors of New England's future. We can elect to write fiction, spinning amusing tales like James Frey that make us feel good but at the same time deceive us. Or we can be honest and deal in facts. It's a harder story to write, but it's one we and our children will be proud to read.

This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.
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