Is That a Fact? (Or, How Many Moons Does Earth Actually Have?) – On Why We Need to Change Schools’ Over-Rated Obsession With Facts

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Ever watched QI? In case you haven’t, QI (Quite Interesting) is the BBC quiz show which subverts and lampoons other quiz shows. A series of obscure, trick questions are asked, and the panelists earn points by avoiding the ‘pathetically obvious’ answer, and / or answering in a funny or clever way.

Points are awarded reluctantly for the correct answers on the rare occasions when they do happen.

But this is not the point.

The point, I think, is to overturn the traditional notion of the importance of having a mind full of ‘useful facts’. ‘Knowing the facts’ is demonstrated to be a tenuous thing, mainly because many of those ‘facts’ have a fixed shelf-life, and begin to decay relatively quickly once you ‘know’ them.

As an example, one of the most famous questions on QI is the one about how many moons the Earth has:

Perhaps the most notorious instance is when, Series A, we said the earth had two moons. In Series B, we said there were either five or one, but definitely not two. These ideas were novel at the time (and quite controversial) but, as of Series K, scientists now think the Earth has thousands of moons. At least one is the size of a washing machine, with a thousand more as big as a basketball. NASA calls them ‘mini-moons’ or Temporarily Captured Objects (TCOs). Most stay in orbit for about a year before spinning back into space or burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

But what’s most interesting about QI is the fact that the ‘all-knowing’ host always has a stack of ‘cheat cards’ with him (or her) – presumably with the facts and connected interestingnesses printed onto them. And if they cannot verify a fact, a team of ‘QI Elves’ quietly does so behind the scenes. Hence, even ‘the authority’ is given the opportunity to look things up.

QI shows us that our scientific, historical, and general understandings change as we unearth new evidence and new ways of interpreting evidence. Which means facts change. Facts are tenuous things – they are true, but they are only true in our current context within our current understandings and interpretations of the evidence.

Say the Elves:

What we think we know changes over time. Things once accepted as true are shown to be plain wrong. As most scientific theories of the past have since been disproven, it is arguable that much of today’s orthodoxy will also turn out, in due course, to be flawed.

All of this doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a fact, or that we shouldn’t believe in facts, or that we shouldn’t teach the facts. Nor does it mean we can insert any old silly ideas, interpretations, and ‘alternative facts’ in their place. Orthodox facts are still our best current interpretation of the evidence, and although many of them do change over time, this doesn’t mean that they have the same status as invented fictions. But we do need to understand that facts can change, and we need to teach our students this.

Many universities do explicitly teach their students that facts have a half-life and that they decay and change. Particularly in fields like medicine and engineering. Yet most schools are still obsessed with teaching ‘the facts’ – without any indication that these are not the solid immutable things we pretend they are.

This makes some people very uncomfortable. ‘Is a fact not something trustworthy and reliable, outside of the realm of human interpretation?’, they argue. Well, no. A fact is just our latest evidence combined with highly probable interpretations of that evidence.

We still need to teach the facts, but we do need to make it clear that many of these facts will change as new evidence comes to light. It is a daunting process, but it is also a very exciting one – and perhaps even a noble one.

Says ex-host Stephen Fry in the QI Book:

It’s the ones who think they know what there is to be known that we have to look out for. “All is explained in this text—there is nothing else you need to know,” they tell us. For thousands of years we put up with this kind of thing. Those who said, “Hang on, I think we might be ignorant, let’s see…” were made to drink poison, or had their eyes put out and their bowels drawn out through their botties.

We are perhaps now more in danger of thinking we know everything than we were even in those dark times of religious superstition (if indeed they have gone away). Today we have the whole store of human knowledge a mouse-click away, which is all very fine and dandy, but it’s in danger of becoming just another sacred text. What we need is a treasure house, not of knowledge, but of ignorance. Something that gives not answers but questions. Something that shines light, not on already garish facts, but into the dark, damp corners of ignorance.

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