RIP: Facts

Published:April 20, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

According to the Chicago Tribune, Facts—born in 360 BC to the ancient Greeks and raised, over the millennia, by various schools of epistemology—is dead at the age of 2,372. It was the victim of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, blogs, and the Internet. It was only recently, in the age of scientific advances and the H-bomb, that Facts reached the peak of its power.

But those halcyon days would not last.

People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.

“There was an erosion of any kind of collective sense of what’s true or how you would go about verifying any truth claims,” [NYU professor Mary] Poovey said. “Opinion has become the new truth. And many people who already have opinions see in the ‘news’ an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact.”

We see this a lot at the encyclopedia—whether it be Facts-free takes on the Civil War and slavery or the contempt with which even a textbooks sometimes treat Facts. Still, Encyclopedia Virginia wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have more optimism than the Chicago Tribune. At the risk of protesting too much, we take Facts seriously, and we’re even on the Internet!

Still, there’s more to be said than that. History is not simply a collection of Facts, and the Internet is not the reason we lack for Facts. As I wrote here, history is the narrative and the arguments we build out of Facts. And it’s our inability to think critically about Facts that will ultimately be our downfall, not, I dare say, blogs.

IMAGE: Our Virginia: Past & Present by Joy Masoff (2010), first edition online, pages 122–123