A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing

It’s often tempting to consider the past through a present-day lens, and that causes distortion. Take, for example, the idea of a fact. Our ancestors did not elevate the fact as anything of importance. Instead, they considered facts to be evil, in opposition with God’s plan. This way of thinking begins with perception, a capacity that we share with animals. “For them, knowledge had to be something more than what we learn from our senses, because it is such a distinctly human capability of our God-given and God-like soul.”

Thomas Bacon, known for the Scientific Method and for his cool combination of dapper hat, moustache-goatee combo, and stylish  collar.

Thomas Bacon, known for the Scientific Method and for his cool combination of dapper hat, moustache-goatee combo, and stylish collar.

It isn’t until the 1700s that the current idea of a fact takes shape. In the Italy of the 1500s, double-entry bookkeeping is among the first presentations of fact as a decision-making tool. In England, in the 1700s, Francis Bacon’s work on the scientific method led the way toward building theories based upon “particulars,” not deduced from a grand theory. Of course, this way of thinking sidelined generally accepted beliefs, a radical idea at that time, and in our times, too.

220px-Thomas_Malthus

Thomas Malthus

You may recall that Thomas Malthus theorized that food supply would not keep pace with population growth. His initial documents were based, mostly, upon deduction. His later documents were based upon well-researched fact. The shift in thinking occurred during his watch, before and after the year 1800.

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill

Enter Jeremy Bentham, a Malthus contemporary. Bentham’s theory, simplified: government ought to provide “the greatest happiness of the greatest number [of people]” In order to do the job, government would need a clear picture of the people it served (also a new idea, government as service, but that requires another article).

The word “statistics” enters the language around this time: stat, of course, is German for the state.

By the 1830s, the British government is obsessed with this powerful tool: facts. They commission a series of Blue Books filled with facts, statistics, anecdotes, interviews and more. The Blue Books are reports about “poverty, crime, education, and other social concerns.”

Charles Dickens, who made fun of his government's newfound love for facts.

Charles Dickens, who made fun of his government’s newfound love for facts.

By the 1850s, the clever novelist Charles Dickens grows weary of the fact-based Blue Books. From Dickens’ Hard Times, “We hope to have, before long, composed of commissioners of facts, who will force the people to be a people of fact and of nothing but fact.”

By around the 1900s, fact-finding missions had become common, and World War I becomes the first war fought, largely, upon the basis of facts.

At the risk of capturing the obvious idea, our contemporary media environment is skewed because opinion and pontificating is, often, more entertaining than fact-based thinking. Rush Limbaugh gets the ratings; the Encyclopedia Britannica ceases publication. Constitutional scholar Cass Sunstein says, “Many people are mostly hearing more and louder echoes of their own voices.” His context is the internet, where groups of like-minded people share their beliefs, and by their numbers, magnify ideas that may not be fact-based into cultural touchstones. He goes further to explain that members of those groups are becoming less likely to communicate with people outside the group, and wonders whether this supportive groupthink is detrimental to democracy. (So much for the hope that the abundance of information, and facts, on the internet would encourage interaction between these groups.)

And that leads to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, who believes that the internet is “weakening our capacity for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

220px-Al_Gore_at_SapphireNow_2010_croppedA parallel path also leads to Al Gore, who asked this question in his book, The Assault on Reason: Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way American now makes its important decisions?”

Perhaps the answer to Mr. Gore’s question is complexity. We learn arithmetic but not calculus, we have been taught to think in simple linear terms, not in terms that help us to understand the complex, dynamic system that our society has become. Our contribution to the chain begun by Bacon: the mapping of complex systems that change over time. It is these systems that draw facts into the future, and these models that provide potent vaccination against those who theorize on the basis of beliefs, not facts.

On another parallel path is the passionate amateur. Included in that class would be both Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, neither one a scientist, each a relentless cataloguer of observations, and, as a result, a theorist whose ideas are based upon endless study and analysis.

Jenny_McCarthy_at_E3_2006And, there is the celebrity whose role is related to a megaphone. Ideas that might not otherwise reach a large audience become popularized because a celebrity become involved. When former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy and actress Jenny McCarthy started making noise about vaccinating our children, people paid attention. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is attempting to resolve the delicate balance between Mr. Fox’s own story and fame, and the broader agenda that must drive the Parkinson’s foundation (that carries his name). The Fox foundation has been intelligent and thoughtful in its use of social media, engaging individuals, on a large scale, to participate in trials and other research. Here, the “particulars” are the individual cases, the undeniable truth of daily life with a disease not yet cured.

Too Big To Know

How does all of this come together? The fact is, we’re still figuring out the answer to that question. David Weinberger’s book, Too Big To Know, the source of many of the ideas and all of the quotes in this article, does a fine job in raising questions and providing examples. Addressing the crisis of knowledge (his belief, with which I do not wholeheartedly agree), Weinberger suggests that we open up access to a much broader range of facts; link everything in sight; dig deeply into institutions to make their knowledge available to a larger population; and relentless teach so that we all gain a better understanding of how our world works, and how it might work in the future.

BTW: The article’s title, A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing refers to love as explained by lyricist Hal David for the Broadway musical, Promises, Promises.

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