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The Trouble With Facts

March 5, 2012

As for socks, L makes the point that some day I may come to appreciate the joy of owning 30 socks instead of just 15 pair.

It would be a liberating change, but I’m not sure it’s in my future. You never know. Things change.

Not liking mismatched socks must be deeply rooted, because otherwise, I tend to like things asymmetrical, weedy, worn, patinaed.

Yet when we play Bananagrams, I count my tiles by lining them up in regular rows; same way for counting change at the end of the day. It makes recounting easy.

Anyway, one can get many more pairs out of 30 socks than just 15 matching ones, so I’ll have to reconsider my position.

It can be helpful to stay open to new points of view. Just picking up a globe and turning it around in your hands can give you a new idea of the relationship of Japan to California.

Facts seem to be mutable things, especially in an election year. But even non-rhetorical statements of fact are complicated by perception. What is a red rose to a color-blind person? To a blind person?

Facts usually rest on layers of accumulated knowledge, on other facts. No one has seen an oxygen molecule, but we have layers and layers of evidence supporting the idea of it as well as its existence.

The trouble with facts arises during a search for certainty. I certainly see this every Monday night when I cover our shift for AskColorado, a statewide online reference desk. Student questions usually relate to homework, such as “What are some facts about Colorado?” Harmless enough.

“What are some positive and negative interactions between humans and the physical environment in Churchill (Canada)?” This makes a more complicated conversation with the student.

First, there’s the wording of the question, which is sometimes awful to begin with, sometimes misquoted by the student, who is impatiently typing his or her own short version into the chat window.

Then there’s the inevitable disappointment when I can’t send them a webpage from which they can cut-and-paste a sentence such as “The positive and negative aspects are …” Instead, they have to read, then construct their own statements of fact.
Facts may or may not enter into persuasion for a course of action. One might hope they do, unless they get in the way of one’s preferred course of action.

I loved what happened to a friend, a library director often involved in state or local politics: Years ago, he was confronted at a gathering by a long-time Colorado politician, someone high in the hierarchy, who said, “You know what’s wrong with you? You act as if facts matter.”

Right from the horse’s mouth. Facts are on my mind because of a new book that had fifteen minutes of fame last week in the New York Times Book Review, “The Lifespan of a Fact.” It chronicles a battle between an essayist playing loose with the facts and the fact-checker at the magazine publishing his essay.

The battleground included facts vs. truth, a territory where both seem to get lost.

I’ll leave you with something that George Bernard Shaw may or may not have said. Doesn’t matter; you can find it on the Internet:

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”


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