How Research Leads To Nihilism

So you have a novel to research, or you want to write a script set in the FBI, or the White House, or a teaching hospital.

Here is how you think research works (and how I used to think research worked): if you are a writer who cares, you go to an expert — or perhaps several experts — and get the proper information. If this information is in your book or script, your work will have the ring of truth to all, and the experts will be especially pleased that you took the trouble to do things properly.

It’s a simple enough picture, isn’t it?

It’s also dead wrong.

Long ago I was watching an episode of a time-travel show set in the plague time just before the Great Fire of London. One character comments to another on the shutting down of the theaters. I happened to be watching with an expert in medieval and early Renaissance history, and she commented, “That’s wrong.” She commented mildly, for it was not a show that promised stringent historical accuracy, and only a kill-joy would have insisted on it; but she did note the fact, and went on watching. I said, “It is?” She answered me with something about the Puritans I have since forgotten. Ah, I see, I thought — she was thinking about the theaters being shut down because they were frivolous. “But weren’t they also shut down because of the plague?” I asked.

“They were?” she said.

“I seem to remember something about that in A Journal Of The Plague Year.”

I mention this because it follows a pattern I’ve seen repeat over and over; and because even at the time, it made me think. When an expert sees something on television or reads it in a book, first, they have to interpret the lines just like anybody else; and second, as an expert, when something deviates from what they expect, the reflexive mental response is to consider it an open-and-shut mistake.

Years later, I wrote a novel with some historical sections, and had a different expert-friend vet it. Now, the English are nothing if not overly complicated in their titles of nobility, and even though I felt ninety-nine percent certain that a particular character would be Lady Surname, and not Lady Firstname, I decided to play it safe and give her a name that could pass for either. My expert, however, read it and assumed it was a first name, and therefore wrong.

There’s nothing shocking in this. We all read, watch, and interpret through the light of our assumptions. That’s the way audiencing works — and indeed, as writers, we take advantage of this process in our storytelling. But it’s a process that cannot be totally controlled, because it does depend on interpretation. And that’s why that simple picture I mentioned up top will never, never be true.

In answer to a comment to the previous post, I wrote of my current show:

“We have four permanent medical consultants who are MDs, one of whom is on staff as a writer. We have a full-time consultant physically on site when filming. All stories are worked out with the aid of these consultants, and often with the additional aid of specialists. (For example, for my first script I also spoke with three neurologists and an infectious disease specialist. For my second, I spoke with a leading brain-mapping expert and with two researchers into viruses and cancer.)

After all this is done, the script is written — generally with more calls or visits to the experts — and then the production draft is sent to all the consultants to read and correct. They all mark up the script, and give it back. Everything they want to change is then changed to what they prefer, or it is discussed further with a doctor for an alternate line that works with the story and makes sense medically.

Wait — I forgot the pharmacology expert who also vets each script.”

So, you’re thinking, with all this, those episodes must sail right through, yes? Acknowledged by all to be 100 percent accurate?

Weren’t you reading that opening couple of paragraphs? There is no 100 percent accurate.

But it’s science! Science is either right or wrong, isn’t it? Everyone agrees on it, don’t they?

If you’re one of those unfortunate people with a chronic condition, you know: doctors contradict each other. They’re like the rest of us humans that way. They have a lens of personal interpretation, like everyone else; perhaps things were done in a certain way in the hospital where they trained and a different way in the hospital where someone else trained. Now, this is great for me as a writer — it’s why I like to talk with as many experts as possible — but it does mean that at the end of the process, there will be no Holy Grail.

And then, as with my friend the historian, all lines are interpreted by the ear that hears them. I once had a page of medical dialogue that I got from Doctor A, which Doctor B wanted to change entirely. I obeyed Doctor B’s changes, and handed the new document on to Doctor C, who felt the page was wrong and wanted to change it all to a third thing. Who was right? They all were — they simply interpreted the lines differently. For instance, you’re watching television and you hear someone say that X “doesn’t happen.” As an expert, you want to say, “X does damn well happen!” Well, here’s a follow-up question: were the lines spoken on-screen colloquially, as two characters will actually talk, because X happens only under certain very rare circumstances (which are irrelevant to this case)? Or were they meant as a bald textbook statement of fact? And which way is the ultimate audience going to interpret it?

And here’s where a novel has a slight advantage over television: no page limit. If you want to put in a minute of dialogue in which the characters parse out what they’re saying to the millimeter, and make it plain exactly why a particular interpretation and no other applies to this particular case, go ahead. Live it up. Of course, you can do that in a script, too. It’s just that it’ll be cut, because in television you simply don’t have that kind of time. (And in that book example, you’ll face the equation that says, “X = the number of lines the characters take to discuss minor details of the ‘A’ story. Where I increase X, I may satisfy the .0001 percent of the audience familiar with this subject by clarifying it so they cannot possibly misunderstand what is meant, but I also decrease Y, where Y = the attention span of the average reader.” Where Y decreases, books close and channels are switched. It’s your decision; which way do you want to go?)

Welcome to the gray areas that are my life. I’d mention, from the same script, the pharmacology expert who took exception to something a doctor had given me from some actual cases, but I think you’re getting the picture.

I once wrote a story dependent on what would happen if a certain mathematical theorem were solved. The mathematician I consulted was adamant that it didn’t work that way; that my story simply couldn’t be told. Adamant! Finally I had to forward him the e-mail from the world-famous, prizewinning mathematician who’d suggested exactly this story.

Are you beginning to see why I said this is a pattern I’ve seen happen over and over?

You may have seen a show called The Agency, which dealt with CIA operatives in a real-world context. We had four consultants: one ex-case officer and head of station, two field operatives with experience in disguise, and an ex-SEAL sort of guy. (I’m being as vague as possible here in my descriptors.) Every script was vetted by all four. You may be assured that if the two field operatives gave us something from their personal experience, the ex-case-officer would laugh at it as completely false and unbelievable, but he supposed we Hollywood types would insist on doing silly things.

And there is no safe place. Really. I assumed I’d take some flack for an out-there story about viruses and cancer, since the first three doctors I spoke with thought I was out of my mind for considering it. But I kept coming back, mentally, to an article I’d read which was so lucidly written I had to think there was something there. (You know how you can often tell when an article for the layman is full of crap? There are vaguenesses, logic doesn’t hang together, etc.? This article was the opposite of that – very sharply written.) I ended up tracking down the experts mentioned and leaving them messages begging them to phone me back. Two of them did, bless them. And it was a writer’s dream come true: not only did they give me the okay on my story, they went beyond what I’d needed. (Me: “So these records go back to the early 1900s, right?” “Oh, before that! There are references through the 1800s to [long and wonderful series of facts]. And if you’re wondering how I know all that, I just had to review the literature for a paper I’m giving.” I thought, “I have found The Man! Marry me and bear my children!” Later I went to another writer:

Me: “I have found The Man!”
Writer (withholding judgment): “What’s The Man’s CV?”
Me: “[Prestigious Medical Institution.]”
Writer (smile): “You’re golden!”)

But it was such an out-there concept, I figured the story would come under a lot of fire. On the other hand, if there was anything that would sail through, it would be the herpes mark we showed on-screen. Because a very obliging young man came to my office with five different herpes sores cosmetically imprinted on his arms for me to choose; and I brought an experienced MD into the office to join me, and he talked about the classic description of the herpes sore.

But after the episode aired, I discovered quite a number of people seemed to have heard of the virus/cancer thing. On the other hand… “That didn’t seem to resemble any herpes sore I’ve seen,” one person said.

So when the expert next door to you comments on the accuracy of a particular event he saw on television, he may well be utterly right. Certainly he’s right according to his experience and his interpretation. I’ve just seen too much ambiguity and disagreement to take anything for granted — and boy, do I now grasp the concept of double-blind studies. The personal lens is way more powerful than we think, or than we acknowledge.

Part Two to follow.

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