The Facts About the Problem with Facts - Bullshit Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Anna Swann-Pye

By Anna Swann-Pye

Fun Fact: The world is not flat. Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey.

It is a fact that the earth was considered flat at one point in time. It is a falsehood that Christopher Columbus’s voyage refuted the notion of the flat earth. It was actually a discovery that came much earlier amongst educated Europeans. And this is not the only popularly believed “false fact” out there.

Unfact: If you touch a baby bird, the mother bird will still rescue it. They don’t have a particularly good sense of smell and, besides, they don’t really care if you’ve smothered their precious young with your sticky human hands, they’re not going to let the little guys die.

Unfact: The Great Wall of China is not the only man-made structure that can be seen from outer space. In fact, you can’t even really see it from outer space. The great wall of China is composed of rocks that are found all over China, meaning it looks like a slightly bumpier version of Chinese ground meaning that it is nearly undetectable.

Unfact: We do not use a mere 10 percent of our brains. If we did, getting shot in the head would be a breeze. We would also be nine times stupider. Humans actually use all of their brains all the time. Some less well than others.

So, facts are a little faulty. But what’s the root of the confusion? The most obvious issue is that we are a little bit blind when it comes to consumption of “common knowledge”. Really, when we’re given any information, we ought to consider a few things.

Facts are often considered the bricks of a complex building of human understanding. But facts are not bricks – they don’t stand alone, they are not the most basic and fundamental element of an intricate structure. To understand a fact, one must understand what surrounds that fact and how that fact came to be. For an example, David Weinberger at kmworld.com uses the fact that “Albany is the capital of New York.” While this may be true, to understand it as a fact we have to understand Albany in a geological context, in a political context, in an economical context. We also have to understand what capitals are and how they work. The statement does not stand alone.

We also must understand that facts are not independent of our knowledge or recognition of them. For example, it is a fact that I have never been to Japan. That is a fact for me. It is not a fact for everyone, but that doesn’t make the fact false. If we begin playing this game, we start to realize that the number of facts are infinite – some of them don’t even hold any baring in the real world. Like, I’ve never ridden on the back of a giant pink bird. This is a fact but it’s not a reality.

So then, who’s to decide what is fact and what is fiction, or which facts are even worth pursuing? There is no use in considering the giant pink bird fact any more than we already had, because it’s irrelevant. But, who’s to decide what should be considered or questioned. This changes over time.

For example, the ancient Greeks didn’t think that how the world began was a question that needed answering. [1] They didn’t consider establishing a fact. Kepler, on the other hand, really believed that he needed to understand why every planet was a given distance away from the sun. Now, though, we have chalked that up to simple coincidence and we don’t look for any other answer.

Facts are influenced by people – by who has a stake in them and who the information pertains to. This means that they change, fluctuate and are constantly being altered depending on who is saying them and when.

So how can we know which facts to trust?

We can pretty much know for certain that the world is round, that humans are warm-blooded and that the atomic weight of lithium is 6.94 (of course we can’t have any idea what that number means unless we think a little more about what atomic weight is). But there are a lot of facts that we really can’t trust.  Maybe, though, this is not really the problem.

The problem is that we assume facts to be the basis of all human knowledge. This is comforting for us, who like to believe in some fundamental truths. It means, though, that when the facts are disproven, a trusted foundation begins to crumble. But, as David Weinberger explains, if we start to understand facts as being linked – being associated with people and with information – they begin to form a web. This web becomes a different sort of foundation – one that is not reliant on the stability of a group of statements, but is held up by various beliefs, speculations, people and by a group of shifting ideas that do not fall apart every time they fluctuate or are questioned.

This web idea becomes especially relevant in the age of the internet. Every fact or statement in every article or online source is linked to proof of that fact and background information found elsewhere (this statement is found at kmworld.com). Take a look at Wikipedia for an excellent example. Wikipedia is a website that produces information as if it is fact, but every claim it makes must be linked to a more reliable source, or the claim is not trustworthy.

So facts are less reliable than we may have wanted to believe, but there’s no need to feel betrayed. We simply must learn to be slightly weary when we absorb information. If, for example, you hear about the newest species of iguana that looks and tastes just like pizza, it might just be pizza. You should try and find yourself a second, third and forth opinion before you take it in to your home as a pet.

References:

1. Abel, Reuben. Man Is the Measure: A Cordial Invitation to the Central Problems of Philosophy. New York: Free, 1976. Print.

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