When I listened to Mike Daisey’s monologue on This American Life about the Foxconn factory where Apple iPads are made, I thought about assigning the podcast to students in a research class I’m teaching. It struck me that it would be a good way to consider the environmental and social issues that we tend to ignore when we think about the technology tools we use every day, tools that are essential for research. I also thought it would be valuable to discuss how we might evaluate the validity of information that comes infused with emotion and art by contrasting Daisey’s monologue with the material that followed, in which other thoughtful people complicated the issue: those factory jobs, with their long hours and unsafe conditions, are nevertheless raising many people’s standard of living significantly. How do we make ethical decisions about such complex issues?
As it turned out, I didn’t assign it – and was relieved I hadn’t when Twitter lit up with the news that This American Life was retracting the story, having found many of the things Daisey claimed to have heard or witnessed to be false. Listening to the most recent episode of This American Life, in which reporter Rob Schmitz uncovered the falsehoods in Daisey’s story and Ira Glass grilled the storyteller about his behavior, was pretty excruciating and reminded me of Oprah’s public shaming of James Frey after his “memoir” was debunked as exaggerations and lies.
It also made me think about the delicate balancing act of helping students to be critical of sources without becoming completely cynical. When we talk about peer review. I want them to recognize that it sometimes fails spectacularly, but still see its general value. Sometimes they only shift from “if it’s scholarly, it must be reliable” to “oh, great, I guess nothing can be trusted, then.” They need to learn to trust their instincts and evaluate sources in context and on their merits, but it's not easy.
Daisey’s case is particularly troubling because he claimed that art is more truthful if a few inconvenient facts are rearranged for better effect. He seemed to believe the problem was that by appearing on a radio program in which the line between dramatic storytelling and journalism is unclear, listeners were confused about which genre he was practicing. He was sorry people mistook it for an accurate retelling of actual experience rather than as a higher truth.
Me, I’m not buying his argument. I'm angry that he felt truth would be improved by lying, angry that he took a really important story and a valuable platform for telling it but didn’t trust us to care about the people he actually met in China without resorting to falsely manipulating our emotions.
I have no doubt that a great deal of truth can be conveyed through art. An essay in this Sunday’s New York Times covered some research I’ve followed for a few years now, on the ways that reading fiction seems to enhance people’s ability to feel empathy, perhaps by acting as a mental simulation of complex social situations, giving us practice experiencing the world from other perspectives. Other research has shown that people often incorporate “factual” material from fiction into their knowledge base – which puts a burden on writers to get things right. Even when their readers are aware something is invented, imaginary, make-believe, beliefs stick.
Unfortunately, Daisey instead made it easy for people to distrust their response to real issues inherent in our willingness to rely on products that are made under working conditions we would never accept on our own soil. He’s made it easy for us to stop caring, to be more cynical. To disbelieve.
It seems particularly ironic that this is happening just as Apple is in the news because it has to decide what to do with its $100 billion excess cash.