F a c t s ?
I’m worried. Facts are in danger. In fact, the very idea of a fact is raising eyebrows. Not everywhere yet, thank goodness. And you could say that only the zealous devotees of autocratic leaders are dissing facts. But you could also say that all of us now look around as we say the word. Some of that is just our timidity in the face of fact-phobic clients or bosses. We fear they will stop paying or promoting us if we are fact-advocates. Especially if we say that facts should be the basis of organisational policy, heaven forbid.
I remember the very moment this started. It was 22nd of January 2017. I froze the moment I heard Kellyanne Conway answer Chuck Todd’s question. He had asked her why the brand new Press Secretary had uttered the falsehood that ‘Trump had attracted “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration”’. Todd said that the facts unequivocally disproved that. She said, ’Sean Spicer gave alternate facts to that.’
God help us.
Alternative facts. What ever are those? Outdated facts, okay. Emerging facts, fine. But alternative? Do we have a choice when it comes to facts? Let’s see, I think I’ll come up with an alternative fact here, something favourable to me that is actually disprovable right this minute. How about …?
At least Chuck Todd nailed it in response: ‘Alternative facts are not facts.’
But I registered that moment as the beginning of something sinister. It was permission to censure provable facts and replace them with whatever you feel like. And then to use your authority and your you-worshipping public to assert it as truth. Orwell is laughing.
I’m not sure what else to say about this. I’m Munch’s ‘Scream’. Hear me: there is such a thing as a fact. And they are our best objective reference point for describing physical reality. (There are feeling reference points, of course, and they matter, often crucially, but we don’t claim them as objective fact.)
And yes, some facts get replaced over time by new discoveries. But not by provably-wrong ‘alternatives’. And I appreciate that when you get to the ‘entanglement’ level of the quantum world, ‘facts’ change their nature; everything is potential; everything is relationship; and indeterminacy is the name of the pretty much incomprehensible game. But a) by the time those indeterminate relationships become us, their exotic indeterminacy has zilch to do with the experienced facts/reality we live in and in which we make decisions and policy, and with which we compute how many people went to an inauguration. And b) fact-deniers are unlikely to have read anything, even the sublimely eloquent Carlo Rovelli, on this topic. (Forgive me if you are a fact-denier and you have read him. I admit to prejudice here – based on my collection of facts of the fact-deniers who stalk my world.)
As I said, I’m worried.
I’ll leave it at that.
S C I E N C E I N T H E D R A W E R
I wish I had grown up in a religious culture that taught children the discoveries of science on the very same day it taught the imaginings of religion. I wish that every Sunday I had learned that the universe is 60 billion light years across, 13 billion years old, and will flatten into nothing in about a trillion years. I wish I had learned how tiny and strong an atom is and how much space there is in it. I wish I had been told that hard stuff is not hard; it is invisible force. I wish someone had asked me to consider that particles may be in two places at once. I wish I had heard that human cells started by a chance change in bacteria near steaming vents at the bottom of the sea. I wish I had looked into the night sky and been told that the light of some of those stars left 100 million years ago on its way to us, and that the stars may not even exist now.
I wish that once every week, in Sunday School, I had heard that it is good to hypothesise, to observe, to analyse, to theorise, to determine, to discover errors, and to probe again. I wish that my Sunday School teacher had said every week that it is good to doubt, to be shaky, to scratch our heads because it means we are about to see something for the first time. I wish I had not heard over and over that it is best just to believe – to wrestle doubt to the ground, to expunge it. I wish the Big Bang shared equal time with ‘Genesis 1:1’ And that the dispersal of our atoms into the universe to become stars again were as talked about as heaven.
I wish there had been in my sacred culture a volume of beautiful science writing that got passed down through the generations and was handled reverently and set back on its special table with extreme care.
I wish that there were a science book, something by Lewis Thomas, say, or 'Richard Feynman, or Carlo Rovelli, in the drawers by the beds in hotels.
I wish that in Sunday School I had heard as sacred teaching that thinking for yourself is as fulfilling as following ritual; that coming to a view through observation and measurement and logic and hypothesis is as transformational as coming to the altar. I wish I had been encouraged to investigate until the contradictions resolved, rather than to accept as mysterious things that don’t add up.
I am sad that I emerged into adulthood with none of this astonishing information from the the holy segments of my society. After 18 years and nearly a thousand Sunday experiences, I had heard nothing about these wondrous things that are physically verifiable, requiring no faith in the fictitious, only fascination with the facts. I wish my Sunday society had instituted a culture of wondering, not just a cult-ure of worship.
There were a few science classes in school later, of course. But that exactly misses my point. It is the very fabric of the childhood experience, the everyday, week-after-week, religious holiday after holiday, the throughout-the-town, specially-set-aside time, the dress-up-for-it, support-with-money, systematic urging of every child to learn and honour the perceptible, measurable, discernible wonders of Nature that I wish had existed. It just didn’t. Anywhere. Parents did not have to promise in front of their assembled congregations to support the new child in their learning about the physical universe, only about the imagined one. I wish they had.
I am 75. I have been revelling in eloquently-presented, accessible science for 10 years now, each minute flowing with reverence for what is. I hope I have time enough left to learn much more, if not as much as I might have learned and loved if, as a child, I had been baptised into the values of science and its tangible, reasoned, refutable, ever-emerging, astonishingly plausible knowledge, and of the sheer bliss of being wrong so that we can get closer to being right.
So here and there I write reveries, expressions of awe, awe in the face of what is. Maybe these reveries are also encouragement for our cultures to worship the physical, to probe and question and allow as enough the ravishing, objective, deity-free, perplexingly complex, elegantly simple nature of Nature.
Maybe, too, they are acknowledgment of the right of every child to regularly recurring, society-sanctioned ‘Sunday’ sessions of irrepressible wow, non-religious religious moments when nature takes our breath away.
Moon & Earth
They love each other. Don’t they? Moon and Earth.
Certainly we, products of Earth and thus Earth itself, have a love affair with the moon. We gaze from first Crescent through promising Gibbous to true full, adoring it, opulent, palatial, impossible. We don’t come back inside or draw the curtain or leave the field until we have to. We memorise it and take it to bed.
Surely that is love.
When I was 16, I wrote about this. Excerpted, I see its presaging:
What is it about a moon?
Why does my heart thrill?
I wish there were love in my heart.
The love older people feel.
But I am sixteen.
I must wait -
Someday I will love,
And my love and I
Will watch the moon….
Very 16, but young hearts are like that: susceptible, sentimental, wholly unsophisticated. But true.
60 years later I woke at midnight, put a chair and blanket near the French windows, perfectly, ready to become one with her for 2 hours. Eclipsed Blood Moon. I didn’t move,
Love, I’d say.
When I am still and listen, not letting myself start a worky thing, I hear an invisible tree creature. It burbles. I wonder for whom. What like-it lover or threat thrills at that? This moment of that sound, that tiny breath-through-reed trill, was worth my whole journey here.
And look at this. Isn’t it magnificent? Plaits over a girl’s hide shawl. How does a tree do this?
How does a tree do anything? How does it grow a frond, all fingers almost but not entirely like each other, and then another, then twenty, arranging them in perfect praise to the sky, and know when to quit; all the while creating a coil to swathe its trunk but only until the plait and shawl start the fronds’ vase?
You say genes. But how them, too? ‘God’? No. ‘God’ stops the questions. 'How God, then’? No. That takes us back to the first how. I want not to stop or start again. I want to keep rummaging, collapsing, courting the hysterics of unsated wonder and furiously, fiercely, emphatically wonder again. Genes get close, and then particles and then strings and then movement only.
We have no idea. Because smart as we are, we are not smart enough, and we must wait another billion years until our mutants can get it. And there we’ll be, piecemeal as stars, the answers our very selves.