Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.
― Charles Dickens, Hard Times
When I first read these lines as part of my 12th-grade English class, I remember having thought to myself, “Wow! What a heartless attitude to have towards children and learning.” Fast-forward nearly a decade and here I am scrolling through my newsfeed on a Sunday night, realizing that there may be more logic to Mr Gradgrind’s statement than I had originally thought.
Now, my aim here isn’t to write an extensive analytical essay on this Dickens classic; I didn’t do that for my teacher back then, and I have no desire to do it now. My intention, rather, is to have a closer look at the current attitude towards facts.
But wait, what on God’s green and slowly over-heating earth am I saying?! How can one have an attitude towards facts? That’s like having an opinion on whether or not the Earth is flat!
Therein lies the rub.
As a physicist in training, sure, I could bore you all with a list of reasons and evidence as to why Earth is most certainly not flat. However reasoning has left the building, changed its address, and gone to live in the mountains of Nepal in an attempt to “like, totally find itself.”
So there we have it. We are living in a time when people are willing to accept subjective beliefs as objective truths, and dispute objective facts as subjective opinions.
Where did it all go wrong?
Perhaps we can blame, at least in part, the selective information stream that is readily available to everyone online. In the past, folks with fringe beliefs that bordered on the absurd were cast out from the rest of society. Today, however, each and every one of us can personalize our social media streams to like, follow, and stalk only those whose opinions converge with our own.
This confirmation bias has resulted in the creation of a milieu that supports nearly every viewpoint by default.
Want to deny the roundness of our planet? There are Facebook pages for that!
Want to deny climate change? There are Twitter accounts for that!
Want to deny the Holocaust? There is probably a damn Pinterest page for that!
And so it goes, a method to every madness and a validation for every subjective opinion.
Our socio-cultural environment has become breeding ground for doublespeak and post-truth. Apparently, according a certain counselor to a certain US president, there is now even such a thing as “alternative facts.”
So where is all this rambling going? What’s my point? What is our conclusion? What can we do about it? And where did I leave my phone charger?
The answer to one of these questions is behind the fluffy pillow on the couch.
Regarding the other questions, I sincerely hope that all of us can take a page out of Mr Gradgrind’s book and get a grip on the reality of facts. They’re not subjective. Facts are truth. Facts are an objective reality that cannot be argued with.
What worries me more than anything else, is that if we lose our ability to define such a simple notion as a fact, then where are we bound as a global society? As my Magic 8-ball used to tell me: “Outlook not so good.”