What did we know and when did we know it? The mutability of facts

In 1770, in his historic defense of British soldiers accused of murdering five Bostonians, John Adams told the jury in his summation:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence…

Facts may indeed be stubborn things, but they are also subject to the vicissitudes of time and nature’s forces. Our thinking about those facts, and their significance to us, is often refracted through the lenses of culture, cognition, and bias. As our understanding of our physical world alters; as records are broken or measurements exceeded; as times, laws, borders, and customs change; our encyclopedias and other reference books, along with our memories, demand constant updating.

In a thought-provoking essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, author Geoff Nicholson pondered “The Joy of (Outdated) Facts“, a meditation on the mutability of factual information and the changing nature of human knowledge. Nicholson observes,

[B]ooks of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.

With hindsight, we can always see through the dubious “authority” of such historical sources. Few things look as unstable as the rock-solid certainties of previous ages. Since encyclopedias are supposed to be balanced and disinterested, the bias often seems even more naked…

Of course, ideas of what’s worth knowing, and even what’s interesting, are constantly changing: The fascination with trigonometrical formulas certainly seems to have receded. But in a world where ever fewer people care about, or even understand the nature of, fiction, where readers and viewers demand facts and reality, outdated books of supposedly impartial information can be a useful reminder of just how slippery facts are — as unreliable as the most unreliable narrator.

Also pondering the phenomenon of the mutability of factual knowledge is Mesofacts, a web site devoted to facts that change slowly over time – whether the population of the world or the number of new elements added to the Periodic Table since you graduated from high school.

To gain our notice, facts need human attention – to collect and record, to weigh or measure, to determine significance, meaning, or connection to other facts. They must enter the machinery of perception – where sometimes they transform themselves into something else entirely, not an objective reflection of what is but a mirroring of who we are.

In fact, I wonder what John Adams would have made of a Supreme Court decision like Scott v. Harris, a case that reveals the permeable boundary between the objective and the subjective. A police officer rammed the car of a fleeing suspect, who was seriously injured and subsequently filed suit alleging that the use of excessive force resulted in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Significantly, a video camera captured the entire chase on film. In an 8-1 decision, according the video evidence great weight, the Supreme Court held in favor of the police officer, determining that the officer’s actions were reasonable, and that the officer was entitled to summary judgment. The lone dissenter, Justice Stevens, insisted that whatever conclusions were to be drawn from the video should be left to a jury to determine.

The video which recorded the entire car chase has become the subject of much debate, as well as the focus of a study by a group of legal scholars. Their results suggest that what we see when we view that video may be the product of cultural, ideological, and other forces. A lone Supreme Court dissenter, Justice Stevens,

“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Jack Webb’s character, police detective Joe Friday, used to say in the U.S. television series, Dragnet. But the facts may be culturally contingent, temporary, or long past their expiration date. In fact, some facts may not be facts at all – much like Joe Friday’s catchphrase, imbedded in our cultural memory but never in fact uttered.

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