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Jul 2, 2017

The Truth Is Out There

This is one of my longer articles. I'm trying to do a few of them to break up the photo montages of archeoseismology travelogues and cute kitty and garden pictures. :-)

According to Wikipedia, the title of this article is a tagline (The X-Files) or an episode title (from the series Charmed and NCIS). The phrase is now so embedded in our consciousness that it might even qualify for a cultural meme.

But what is truth? Is it the same as fact? If it’s really ‘out there’, can we define it? How can we separate truth from truthiness, and why is this so important, both in the real world where we live and in the fictional world, where writers make a living telling lies and showing others how to do it (Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, by Lawrence Block, for example)?

At the Eurocon in Barcelona in November 2016, I participated in a panel about world-building. It was delightfully diverse in its make-up and in the opinions of the panelists about what constituted world-building. Without naming names, I’ll just summarize by saying that the ideas offered included making sure the cultural details included enough authority to be believable and draw the reader in, to constructing a fictional landscape that would be encountered in the scenes being written, to not having any care for world-building at all – i.e., the only thing that matters is story.

I can relate to the last sentiment. I live for story. But story (as in, A happens, then B happens, and so on) is not necessarily my first concern when I’m reading. To this (avid) reader, in the very beginning of a piece of fiction – or creative non-fiction – there are a couple of things
that always ensure I will keep reading. Character, yes. Setting, yes. What about Plot? Not so much, or at all, not at first. Action; please, no. I don’t need to be thrown down in media res. Oh, hell no. Ground me in the world. Make me care about someone. Anyone. And then you can lead me to action and plot all over the place.

My take on world-building as it pertains to a novel or even a piece of shorter fiction – in particular, the beginning – is that the world has to be presented to me, the reader, through the eyes of a character (or possibly a narrator who is not necessarily a character – think Lemony Snicket). I don’t care what kind of kick-ass Sensawunder setting is going on unless I am shown how the character thinks and feels about where she is. How does it smell? How does it taste? Is she happy here?  Is this her home or is she far away? That kind of thing.

To me, this has everything to do with world-building and relates to what the participants on the world-building panel were trying to say: culture, scenery, story. All these elements are valid interpretations of world-building, but by themselves, not enough.

Not to spare myself criticism, as a fellow panelist, I stammered through a short speech to give my take on world-building. I was imagining something similar to what I’ve begun to illustrate so far – but instead, I resorted to waving my hands (literally) and not making much sense. I resorted to using the word paradigm.

World-building is all about paradigm because paradigm is the basis for how we, as conscious beings, are able to create our selves as separate from the world around us. It is, essentially, on a personal or cultural basis, a model of the world. All people have a paradigm. I would go so far as to say that even non-people, members of the animal kingdom without a primate frontal lobe, also have a paradigm (see, for example, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal)
So, everyone has a different way of looking at the world. Big surprise (said in a Julia Roberts voice).

But I’m still hand-waving. We’re not getting much closer to defining what a paradigm is and what it has to do with world-building and what that has to do with truth (and truthiness).

According to the OED, the simplest interpretation, based on the Greek (and Latin) origins of the word, a paradigm is a pattern or a model. The OED also lists a (philosophical) definition: a mode of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science in a particular period of history. This definition is one that I particularly identify with because I’m a scientist. My personal paradigm is shaped, is defined, by my scientific background as a geoscientist. It doesn’t mean that my paradigm is any more valid (true) than a non-scientist’s worldview. But there are important differences.

What separates the general population from those with a scientific upbringing is not only their respective paradigms (because each branch of the sciences – hard and soft – has its own, sometimes complementary, paradigm), but how they process their data. Data are collected bits (and I’m using that term here descriptively rather than quantitatively) of information. I’ll even further quantify: Data are values measuring or reporting information about each individual in a group, including details of how the values go together and what they report. Values have units, depending on how the data were measured or collected (adapted from the excellent textbook Data Analysis with Excel: An Introduction for Physical Scientists by Les Kirkup). Another way to say it in laymen’s terms: data have to be about something, and that something is information.

Thanks to the polymath and pioneer Claude Shannon, often hailed as the ‘father of information theory’, the term information is now firmly embedded in the global human consciousness. Although defined by Shannon over three hundred years later, information, like many other terms (matter, force, motion) quantized in the Clockwork Universe phase near the start of the Scientific Revolution, Shannon reduced information to its basic unit, the bit. Because data is a collection of information, that implies that data, too, can be reduced to basic units. But that would be too simple a way to view such a complicated concept and to go further in that direction is not really necessary for the purposes of this article.

So how does data relate to paradigm? Data by itself – consisting of facts, measurements and other types of information – does not constitute knowledge. Knowledge (or wisdom) is the next step and a concept even more nebulous than data. By analyzing patterns in the data (and here we are getting closer to paradigm – remember the Greek origins of the word), knowledge can be gained, interpreted and passed on to others. Does knowledge imply truth? Open question.

Regardless of whether knowledge=truth, an interpretation of the data at hand based on analysis of the patterns (commonly achieved through classical statistical analysis, exploratory data analysis or some other kind of deterministic modeling) does reveal a version of truth consistent within a particular (scientific) paradigm.

Or not.

If the investigator (human or computer) reveals through their analysis a result that contradicts the prevailing paradigm, then a scientific revolution a lá Thomas Kuhn may be instigated (or propagated), and the paradigm may (eventually) be usurped or modified to include the new results (usually after repeated instances of such results – a clear argument in favor of the continuance of peer review, but that’s another discussion). This is the way Kuhn believes science works, and as far as it goes, it’s not a bad way to look at the idea of paradigms through the lens of scientific traditions and methodology.

On the surface, cultural or personal paradigms are not too different, but instead of being driven by data analysis and/or models, they’re driven by social norms. As summarized by anthropologists Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz in their essay, Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots (in Questioning Collapse:  Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee), “…what people want…is formed in the context of narratives: stories they are told and tell about the way the world works or might work, stories about what human beings might plausibly hope for.”

So social norms also represent a sort of collective knowledge or truth, based on cultural and/or religious traditions. Can a paradigmatic shift occur when we change the kinds of stories we tell? Are statements such as “Make (insert ‘your favorite nation’ here) Great Again” (implying that ‘your favorite nation’ is no longer great) or “Immigration is Bad for Us Because (‘reasons’)” or “Climate Change is a Hoax” examples of changing the story? Do they represent a revolution in the making? Or are these examples of mere truthiness?

Stephen Colbert (in his 2005 initial episode of The Wørd) lays claim to originating the word truthiness, defining it to be “a quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts.” In his well-reasoned and interesting book, Truth or Truthiness: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction by Learning to Think Like a Data Scientist, Howard Wainer discusses fracking, teacher tenure, and student testing by posing the question: what’s the evidence?

For the claims given above, we as writers can also ask the question, what’s the evidence supporting the statements?  Wainer suggests that non-scientists can also benefit from using the methods of science and don’t need detailed technical knowledge to move from truthiness to truth in such claims. He lists three essential parts to investigating a claim: 1) some carefully gathered data combined with, 2) clear thinking, and 3) graphical displays (can be simple and hand-drawn) to illustrate the results of 1) and 2).

Think like a scientist! It’s a worthy challenge for all of us, especially at this time in history, when everything suddenly seems complicated, when political factions are more opposed than ever, and sometimes there simply seems to be too much information. But how does this apply to us as writers, especially speculative fiction writers engaging in world-building?

World-building relies on writers supplying the reader with stories containing truth rather than truthiness. Readers know the difference.

1) The data that has to be gathered is either already within us or can be had with the click of a mouse or flipping through the pages (physically or electronically) of books or gained first-hand by traveling to the desired location (even if fictional, there may be a similar earth-based location that can be visited).

2) Clear thinking involves the use of character to reveal the truth of the world as seen through the character’s (or characters’) paradigm – culturally as well as scientific (if applicable). 
While exposition may be necessary in parts, to be effective, it will need to be made through the opinion and experiences of character. This seems to me to be one of the best ways to execute world-building, whether the world is pre-designed with careful planning or grows organically by, as Dean Wesley Smith terms it in his book of the same name, Writing in the Dark.

3) Make the graphical displays of the world with words and/or pictures (I can't draw worth a darn, so I use mental pictures and sometimes, lately, if I really need some external help, I collect pictures into a category on ,Pinterest), using all senses where possible as often as possible.  This helps me, helps my brain to reveal the truth of what the characters want, the stories they tell themselves. Their truths are out there.

The creative process involves a hefty portion of visualization. It’s one of the major muscles that needs to be developed when learning the craft of writing, and training that muscle never ends. As Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar Studios, advises (in Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration), “Measure what you can, evaluate what you measure, and appreciate that you cannot measure the vast majority of what you do. And at least every once in a while, make time to take a step back and think about what you are doing.”

Practicing world-building is an excellent training method. And if a story develops out of it, so much the better. Maybe it will even be one that participates in changing or advancing our human paradigm.

photo credits:

Jens Rost TP150 "Fingers crossed" via photopin (license)

tantek IMG_0247.JPG via photopin (license)

Howdy, I'm H. Michael Karshis If you were looking for a sign this is it. via photopin (license)
Cowgirl111 Too Cute - kitten challenge via photopin (license)