Look After Your Mind

As a Matter of Fact

Look after your mind

Many children, and perhaps some adults too, carry the simplistic belief that fiction (from the Latin to fashion or feign) is made up and isn’t true, while facts are discovered, by science for example, and are true. Aside from the tangled question of what constitutes truth, the situation is rather more complicated.

The word fact has links with manufacture, factory and artefact – things that are made by people. There are many aspects to this idea. The most obvious is that facts change as new discoveries are made: look in an old science book to see how many facts are now out of date. I have an old and treasured copy of ‘The Observer’s Book of Astronomy’, written and signed by Patrick Moore, which confidently asserts that Jupiter has 12 moons. As of writing, 95 moons have been discovered – a fact that may well soon become obsolete.

Speaking of science, many scientists (and educationalists) accept that facts are provisional; that theories can change or be abandoned as new ideas come to light. The belief system that underpins many scientific theories is known as a paradigm, a term coined by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. In his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, Kuhn also talks of paradigm shifts, a kind of upheaval in the way scientists need to think about the world in light of new information.

Unfortunately, some scientists, and indeed people in general, tend to hold on to beliefs based on questionable facts; in other words they adhere to dogma. It was the German physicist Max Planck who perhaps rather cynically said that science advances one funeral at a time.

While I’ve tried to highlight the slippery nature of what constitutes a fact, and with children again in mind, it’s important to cultivate in them a questioning attitude so that they can steer a healthy path between gullibility and hardened scepticism – what the educationalists Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner have called a ‘hardening of the categories’. Open mindedness and the willingness to embrace new ideas based on reasoning and evidence helps children to grow into independent critical thinkers.

All of this becomes even more important as information grows and spreads with increasing speed due to new technology. We also live in an age of misinformation (information that is believed to be true but isn’t), disinformation designed to manipulate people, and malinformation which may stem from the truth but is exaggerated in a way that misleads and potentially causes harm. Added to these possible dangers we have fake news (surely not a modern phenomenon) and deep fakes; computer generated images, usually of people, that are indistinguishable from the real thing. Look online for deep fake images to see how frighteningly convincing they can be – and to what devious ends they can be used.

So while I try not to drift further into becoming a grumpy old cynic, whenever I’m exposed to the word ‘fact’ I give a wry smile and check it. And then check it again.

Steve Bowkett