The Truth about Facts

Mike Daisey on Feb. 9, 2012 speaking to the media after delivering more than 250,000 petitions protesting labor conditions at Apple's manufacturing facilities in China. Photograph by Bryan Smith/Zuma Press/Corbis

Over the course of an extraordinarily prolific writing career, Peter Drucker was, on occasion, accused of not always sticking with the facts. “I use anecdotes to make a point,” he said in his defense, “not to write history.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Drucker’s words in the wake of the shocking news that the public radio program This American Life was forced to retract a report on conditions of Chinese workers who make Apple products, saying the broadcast contained “errors” and “fabrications.”

The show, which originally aired in January, focused on Apple supplier Foxconn Technology Group and was based on a theatrical monologue by Mike Daisey titled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey’s performance was purportedly grounded in the first-hand observations he made during a 2010 trip to various Chinese factories, including Foxconn.

But after listening to the radio show, an incredulous reporter retraced Daisey’s steps and found that many of the most dramatic moments that Daisey recounted—including meeting a man whose hand was supposedly mangled by a Foxconn metal press stamping out iPad casings—were flat-out made up.

What has fascinated me is not the lying, but Daisey’s reaction to getting caught. While acknowledging that he crossed a line, Daisey continues to stand by what he sees as the larger truth of his work. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret,” he told This American Life host Ira Glass, “is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

I have no doubt that Drucker, who himself started out as a newspaper reporter, wouldn’t have bought Daisey’s justification. For Daisey wasn’t just making a point; he was intentionally leading people to believe that he had witnessed the worst kinds of corporate practices with his own eyes.

Drucker, moreover, surely would have been troubled by Daisey’s suggestion that such dissembling is acceptable when some greater purpose is being achieved—in this case, “to make people care” about the treatment of poor factory hands in China (a subject that is certainly worthy of attention, as I’ve discussed previously). This reasoning may sound like “high morality,” Drucker wrote, but it is bound to cause the most cynical conduct, as summed up by the 18th century aphorism: “An ambassador is an honest man, lying abroad for the good of his country.”

Yet, at the same time, Drucker would have been the first to caution that the “facts” and the “truth” can be awfully slippery concepts—an especially important thing for managers to keep in mind.

The “facts,” for instance, can easily be misinterpreted, triggering all sorts of problems. Drucker cited the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who was “the first systematically to observe the stars” but “was totally wrong about their meaning.” As a result, Drucker explained in The Age of Discontinuity, Tycho’s “predictions regarding the behavior of stellar bodies” were even more off the mark than those of other astronomers who hadn’t been able to “record the facts” and were therefore less bold in their assertions. “No ignorance,” Drucker declared, “is as great or nearly as dangerous as is precision imposed on misunderstanding.”

Then there’s the issue of whether the “facts” are ever really objective in the first place. “People do not start out with the search for facts,” Drucker noted in The Effective Executive. “They start out with an opinion.” Indeed, to ask employees or colleagues to go search out the facts about a particular situation is often a prescription for delusion, because they will simply “look for the facts that fit the conclusion they have already reached,” Drucker wrote. “And no one has ever failed to find the facts he is looking for.”

The only way to deal with this, Drucker added, is to recognize that “opinions come first,” and they should be treated as nothing more than hypotheses, meant to be tested “against observable experience.”

Managers, that is, would be wise to abide by the same credo to which journalists have long been told to adhere: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

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