–When I was a child I was taught a great many values by my parents, things such as ‘don’t speak with your mouth full of food’, ‘always hold the door open for a woman’, ‘respect your elders’, and ‘if you hang out with Uncle Bob after he’s begun drinking beer, don’t believe half the stories he starts to tell’. Like most young children, I took the values passed on to me from my parents as gospel truth, after all, if I didn’t, I could very well be disciplined by my father when he got home from work, which let me tell you happened on more than one occasion when I forgot the value of “never talk back to your mother” and got a bit too lippy with her as a child.
As I began playing with children in the neighborhood, I learned that many of my friends were taught the same values, especially ideas like ‘don’t cheat’ ‘don’t lie’ and ‘be kind to others’. However, one of the first things I learned as a young child interacting with other children is that each family unit didn’t adhere to all of the same values. While there were definitely a lot of similar values taught in each family, depending on what family you were born into, the values you were taught could vary greatly. For instance, some families taught their children that smoking was abhorrently awful, while other fathers smoked a cigar after dinner each evening; in some houses watching anything other than a PG-rated film was bad, while in others, R-rated horror movies were considered good family fun; or at my friend Chris’s house there was no bedtime, he could stay up as late as he wanted, but if my friend Clinton didn’t get to bed at exactly 8:30 PM there was hell to pay.
These types of ideas weren’t necessarily right or wrong (though in some cases they could be), but consisted of generally good wisdom that our parents, grandparents, religious leaders and others had learned over the ages and were passing down from one generation to the next. It didn’t bother my schoolmates and I too much that our parents had different values and ideas that were embedded in our individual families, we simply learned who could watch what when we got together as mates, and if one of us ended up doing something their parents would frown upon, we learned to not rat our friend out, which is a value we learned on our own; don’t be a tattletale.
As I got older I learned that much of my parent’s wisdom was really good and worth applying to life, but of course, like everyone else’s parents, they occasionally conveyed a few ideas I found to be filled with more fiction than truth, but that was okay, because part of the maturation process was learning to test the various values I was taught against my own experiences to hammer out what was based on sound reasoning, and that which was not.
When I began attending school and other mature functions of society, I learned there is another set of beliefs that adults adhere to that aren’t merely “good wisdom” or “good values” but these ideas were placed under a different label, a label that was said to mean these ideas were beyond question; I was told you ‘have’ to believe these ideas because they are ‘facts’. The adult world adhered to a distinction between ideas; values and wisdom were subjective, they could vary from family to family, and culture to culture, but I was told, by rather dull faced adults, ‘facts are not subjective’ and do not vary from family to family, or culture to culture.
Whether it was at school, home, or the evening news on television, these ‘facts’ were communicated with a great degree of seriousness, so much so, that I was told the reason school and university existed was to teach every student the ‘facts’ they must know to be a successful and meaningful person in society. When I was studying at university, if a student questioned a professor about these ‘facts’, quite often the student was shamed and mocked, as if to question a ‘fact’ to be the act of a dim-witted indigenous tribesman or Neanderthal caveman; we were told that knowing the ‘facts’ is what separated the civilized from the uncivilized, and to question the ‘facts’ was to convey our own ignorance.
It was not merely the instructors and professors at my particular institutions that conveyed this idea, but everywhere I went I noticed this insistence that ‘facts’ could not be questioned; as I progressed at the university level from my bachelor degree to my graduate studies, the professors at the various universities I lectured at throughout North America never wavered in their undying adherence to the dogma that facts were beyond question. Of course, the whole phenomena of fact-based thinking was rather amusing to me, since from the start of my studies at elementary school, to the time I began lecturing at colleges as a graduate student, what I was originally told were “facts beyond question” had ceased to be facts. You see, the ‘facts’ that colleges, professors, scientists and others were telling us forty, thirty, even ten years ago, those ‘facts’, that were apparently so true that to question them betrayed one’s own ignorance, were suddenly no longer a fact. Even more startlingly, not only had previous ‘facts’ been disowned by the intellectuals of society, in some instances they were now telling me that the exact opposite was actually the ‘fact’ that is now beyond question.
Consider for instance the person who graduated with a PhD in psychology prior to 1968. Such students were taught for three generations that it was a ‘fact’ that homosexuality was a mental disorder. If in the 1930’s you were to question your professor about such a thing, you were scoffed at as being stupid, “everyone knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder, it has been proven by scientists as a fact!” he might have told you in front of the class with his nose pointed up in righteous indignation. However, thirty years after the DSM definition on homosexuality was changed, by the time the 21st century began, if you publicly uttered the statement “homosexuality is a mental disorder” you will come under so much attack you might have to change your name and move to a different city. In some areas of North America, the reversal of the “facts” regarding homosexuality have changed so drastically, that stating the previous “fact” (that homosexuality is a mental disorder) is now considered ‘hate speech’ and is a prosecutable offense. Psychologists and psychiatrists in many cities will lose their license if they believe the wrong ‘facts’ about homosexuality.
Of course, my point is not to suggest that homosexuality is a mental disorder (I do not believe any such thing), not in the least. My point is to demonstrate that not only did the ‘fact’ get changed from no longer being a ‘fact’, the exact opposite occurred; to state the previous ‘fact’ became a prosecutable offense!
Some ‘facts’ are not nearly so serious. For example, consider the countless health classes where students were taught for over four generations that it is a ‘fact’ that the human body needs 8 glasses of water each day. Throughout my childhood, whether it was from older family members, teachers, textbook material in schools, and even my baseball coaches, I was inundated with the constant admonishment that the human body needed 8 glasses of water a day to stay properly hydrated; it was a ‘fact’ beyond question I was told. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, an Internet search on the topic will yield thousands of academic articles debunking ‘the myth of 8 glasses of water a day’. Except for a few hold outs (usually older people that lived in the pre-Internet days) it is difficult to find anyone that believes drinking 8 glasses of water a day is necessary. The exact opposite has taken place; it is now believed to be a ‘fact’ that drinking 8 glasses of water a day to maintain a healthy lifestyle is a myth!
A mere two decades ago we were told it was a ‘fact’ that too much butter was bad for us, and so the masses of Americans began using margarine, then, new ‘facts’ were established and we were told to stop eating so much margarine and switch back to butter. At the beginning of a year we are told it is a ‘fact’ that coffee and the caffeine it contains contributes to cancer, then before we have even made it to autumn we are being told it is a ‘fact’ that coffee actually decreases the likelihood you will get cancer.
For more than a decade coconut use has increased exponentially due to the ‘fact’ of its miraculous health benefits over less healthy choices like vegetable oil, dairy products, etc. Americans use coconut oil to make pastas, they put it in their coffee instead of cream, they rub it over their skin instead of traditional skin care products, they even use it during intimate moments with their lover. The massive spike in use of coconut oil over the last ten years has been a marvel to observe. However, over the past year a number of academic articles have been published saying that not only is it a ‘fact’ that coconut oil bad for you, it is equivalent to putting lard in your drinks and on your food!
Prior to the 21st century in North America it was a ‘fact’ that there were two genders; male and female. As I’m writing this, New York City recognizes 21 different genders as a matter of ‘fact’, and Canada legally recognizes at least 3 different genders.
Whether it is in the biological sciences, psychology, physics, astronomy, or whatever particular field we observe; the ‘facts’ do not appear to be ‘facts’. What we are told is contradicted as time goes by, and it begs the question; what do teachers, scientists and intellectuals actually mean when they use the term ‘fact’, and why do they stick their nose in the air with righteous indignation when someone questions one of their ‘facts’?
Many gentle readers might be formulating arguments in their head against what I’ve said so far, perhaps such readers are thinking, “Surely you cannot mean that there are no facts? Surely you must know there are certain facts that are beyond question?” While those are excellent questions that need to be addressed, the first matter of business with regard to the investigation of ‘facts’ is to acknowledge this ever-present reality; a great many of the ‘facts’ we are taught not only cease to be ‘facts’, in many instances as time goes by we are taught the exact opposite of the ‘fact’ is true.