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Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (BAND): December Discussion: Truth in Nonfiction

December 14, 2011 6 comments

BAND is a monthly discussion group of book bloggers who love nonfiction!  If you’d like to join us, check out our tumblr page.

This month Erin of Erin Reads asks us: How do you determine truth in nonfiction?

I feel like the quest for truth has been one of my primary activities since I was a very young child.  I’ve never been the type to just believe something because someone in authority tells me it’s so or because it’s the widely accepted belief or….well, you get the picture.

Everything I’ve pursued in my career and education has gone to back up this aspect of my personality.  My first chosen major in undergrad was History, which is largely focused on determining the truth and not just the accepted cultural myths.  Lessons I learned from my wonderful, intelligent professors stick with me to this day in reading nonfiction:

  • Are there multiple accounts or scientific studies that come to the same conclusion or provide the same information?
  • Does the conclusion the document or observer draw make sense based on known facts about the world?
  • Does the document address opposing viewpoints and provide valid, factual rebuttals to them?  A piece of nonfiction that ignores opposing viewpoints is generally one that cannot be trusted.

So those are the basics I use when I investigate a belief system and proceed to draw my conclusions.  It was this method that I learned in undergrad that led to me deconverting from the religion I was raised in.  (I’m currently an agnostic).  It was this same method that proved to me that eating meat is wrong, so I don’t do it anymore.

Now that I’m older and have a few firm beliefs that I’ve vetted with research, the first question I ask when approaching a piece of nonfiction is: Does this go against what I know to be true?  If it does, I may read it anyway just to help me understand where someone with a different viewpoint is coming from.  But I take everything in it “with a grain of salt.”  These books usually take me a while to finish since anything I can’t disprove immediately, I go out and do research on.  Sometimes this leads to me adjusting my viewpoint, but generally not for things I’ve already researched.

If the nonfiction work I am reading is about something I just really haven’t researched much before then I approach it differently.  I look to see how well-documented and carefully researched the book is.  Did the author cite primary sources in her bibliography?  Are these primary sources from well-respected journals or archives or scientific studies?  I am going to trust a book with 10 pages of bibliography much more than one with 2.  If the author is saying something that doesn’t make sense to me, then I hunt down what she’s cited and read it for myself.  I think through the facts, consider the author’s possible biases (her own race, gender, economic group, educational background), and consider my own known biases before drawing conclusions from the material presented.  If it’s something I can try out for myself like a new recipe, a budgeting system, or an exercise move, I try it and see if it works!

I know that probably all sounds like a lot of work, and IT IS.  Being an educated citizen of the world is really hard work.  But that’s our job.  We’re supposed to constantly be educating ourselves, questioning ourselves, seeking to understand the world and those around us.  How can we ever expect to improve things if we just take everything at face value as handed down to us?  And once you’ve studied something once you can’t just stop studying it.  Science has shown us that.  New evidence comes into play, and we need to reevaluate.  There’s nothing wrong with saying I once thought this was so but now I know I was wrong.  That’s all a part of growing and learning, a part that is, unfortunately, not as encouraged in the American education system as it should be.  It’s part of why I became a librarian.  I want everyone to do this throughout their life.  Because it’s not just truth in nonfiction that we need to question and determine for ourselves.  It’s truth about the world around us.

Check out the nonfiction books I’ve read and reviewed since the October discussion: