Fishy Facts

2 min
at 10:43 PM

We got word on a Wednesday. A conservative pundit and longtime supporter of the president-elect was opining on TV about absurd claims that millions of people voted illegally in California. It didn’t matter if this was a lie. The pundit informed her host: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

The pundit wasn’t referring to news that the Oxford English Dictionary had named “post-truth” word-of-the-year. (Over at Dictionary.com, the word was “xenophobia.”) This was bigger.

So I broke the news to our son, a sophomore in high school. After all, if he’s studying for a chemistry exam, solving quadratic equations, or putting together a report on 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, it’s helpful to know facts are now unnecessary.

True, when the boy was in the third grade—a little younger than the pundit’s kids are now—he illustrated the difference between facts and opinion in a poster about puffins. To quote: “Fact: Puffins’ main source of food is fish. Opinion: Puffins are cool.”

When I told the boy of the demise of facts, he looked up from his laptop screen and said, “Great! I’m now president of the United States. Bring me some food.”

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Thus ensued a discussion about assertions and false premises, selfishness and skepticism, and when empirical evidence is as plain as the nose on your face. That nose, in the case of Tycho Brahe, was made of metal—probably brass—since the astronomer lost a chunk of his original nose in a duel.

Brahe lived before the telescope was invented but still made precise observations about the positions of stars and planets—and the data he collected helped later astronomers shape our present model of the solar system. His observation of a supernova disproved the faith that had existed for centuries that the heavens were unchanging. (He also had a beer-drinking pet elk and may have had an affair with the Queen of Denmark, but that’s another story.)

Back in 2016, liberated from facts, the boy made himself some leftover turkey and pumpkin waffles. Sometimes it’s good to enjoy the sweet alongside the savory. But one question we face now, when it comes to facts and food, is: Who’s going to break the news to the puffins?

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With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

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