There are certain truths I remember from my schooling whose certainty has been compromised. Pluto was the ninth planet of the Solar System. The Brontosaurus was a most elegant dinosaur. Christopher Columbus proved that the world wasn’t flat. Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright. Were they facts? Opinions? Cultural prejudices? It seems rock hard facts can be weathered away and lost, grains in the winds of time.
What makes a fact, a fact ? That Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright I could tell even then was subjective. I loved his plays and still do. Wrapped up in this notion of his greatness is not just the essence of his plays, his ideas and how his plots serve to illustrate them while they entertain, but that he achieved it with poetry. As a poet, I much preferred Pope. Pope was more accessible and didn’t need a concordance to be understood. So Shakespeare’s greatness was diminished by his degraded ability to make himself understood. Time will continue to erode him in this respect. The debasement of his genius only applies to those of us who have not studied English literature, nor will in the future. So then it seems, a fact, knowledge, can be subjective serving the person who holds it true.
Does a fact become a fact because someone has convinced us of it? Because it has become universally accepted? What if its report has served someone’s personal agenda? Take the Brontosaurus. The paleontological community has known since 1903 that the Brontosaurus was a hoax, a product of a Bone War between two leading paleontologists of the 19th Century in their race for academic supremacy. In 1877, Othniel Charles Marsh discovered the partial skeleton of a long-necked, long-tailed herbivorous dinosaur without a head. He named it Apatosaurus. In putting the skeleton together he took the skull of another dinosaur and placed it on the Apatosaurus. The representaion was incorrect. He may have supplemented more of the missing skeleton with other, “spare parts”. The name held. There was no reason to question it. Some years later members of his team uncovered a complete specimen of an Apatosaurus. They needed to give it a name. It was a new dinosaur. It didn’t look exactly like Marsh’s Apatosaurus. It was called the Brontosaurus. In 1903 scientists discovered the ruse. The second skeleton came to be known as an Apatosaurus. Why Apatosaurus and not Brontosaurus? Who knows? But nothing was done about the name until 1970. In the 1980s schools were still teaching the pre-existence of the Brontosaurus. It seems that knowledge is as persistant as human foibles and failings but may not last the distance when professional reputations are at stake. Knowledge is then a socially perscribed grace.
Is a fact still a fact when looked at from the perspctive of a different culture? Today the presidence of the English language for interpreting and disseminating knowledge has a muddling sidekick. That of a prejudiced perspective. As English speakers have the greatest access to this universal language of Planet Earth, their assumed knowledge is referred to again and again in the dissemination of facts. As someone who loves history but grew up in a Commonwealth country, the history that I was exposed to was the history of the Western consciousness. As a student of both Ancient and Modern History in highschool I was taught the history of Mesapotamia until Egypt, Egypt until Greece, Greece until Rome, Rome to the Medieval West, the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the Renaissance. From the Renaissance we jumped to Captian Cook and the narrative of British occupation of Australia, her nationhood and world history in the 20th Century. The Middle East, Egypt, Italy, Greece all disappeared in their centuries BC. Except for Italy which made her way briefly back into our books in the Rennaissance, these cultures and their worlds of experience and knowledge dissppeared to reemerge as names in the modern theatre’s of war, No wonder then, that it was taught that Columbus proved that the world was’t flat. The West may not have in its consciousness images of the round earth before 1492, but Columbus was certain to have had. In 547CE, the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna was consecrated. Within this church is the mosaic image of Jesus as the Ruler of the Earth. He is sitting on a sphere, or giant orb if you like. It is not the only Byzantine image of a triumphant ruler of the world in possession of an orb, just the most impressive. Columbus would have had at least verbal tradition telling him that the world was not flat. This in no way diminished his great feat but puts it into perspective. No, he was not a sado-maschist who risked the lives of his crew on a whimsy. It seems a fact, particularly a historical fact, is bound to the perpective of its interpreter and the broadness of that interpreters experience.
Does a fact have a better chance of persevering the servings of time, cultural perpective and academic politics if it is a fibre in a thread of a fabric of the cosmos? Take poor Pluto. Once a planet, now a Dwarf Planet, a mere planetoid, and not the largest planetoid nor the closest to the Sun. It seems, having discovered larger heavenly bodies, but not too large to be called planets, the astronomical community needed a more stringent classification. A planet must be in orbit around the Sun, be large, be spherical and have enough clout to clear all celestial objects from its orbit. So in 2006, with five planetoids weighing on their diaphragms, they blew away one of the sallies of my scientific schooling. My very Earnest Mother could no longer Just Sweep Up Nine Pins. It seems a fact is only a fact until more facts are brought into the orbit of knowledge. Knowledge is corralled by what we don’t know. For those with the imagination, a leap over the fence frees the way for possibilities to enter the corral of knowledge. It seems science fiction may be truer than science.
Have you seen Crafty Theatre’s Unflat World board on Pinterest?
Statue of Shakespeare
Apse Mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna
The Solar System model
Photo credit: Image Editor / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)