The Factoid : A Revised Interpretation

This article is a revision of an earlier version which was published in 2013.

The term *factoid* was coined by Norman Mailer to express the idea that many things we believe to be true — and therefore do not challenge — are products of endless, ill-intended and often vicious reiteration by some of our news media with the intent to mislead others. It is usually done for personal gain rather than the ignorance of journalists and editors. What is proclaimed to be true is too often found to be inversely related to truth. There may be a smidgen of truth under hidden under the surface, enough to get by, but most of what is claimed is false. When factoids are promoted by higher authorities, like governments or by special political interest groups, or party-machines, such material is known as propaganda.

The underlying principle was already voiced and practiced with consummate and diabolical skill by Josef Goebbels, the infamous henchman of Hitler during the long nights of 1933-1945. His mantra can be expressed as follows:

“Repeat an untruth often enough and people will accept it as truth.”

Of course, it was not invented by Goebbels — but was adapted from the practices of religious organizations who controlled whatever media were available in their respective times. Such control was in force throughout Europe for nearly two thousand years, often with a little help from their skilled enforcers.

George Orwell also wrote extensively about this; how all of us easily become confused by willful deceit and how our language, our most powerful method of molding other people’s opinions and mind-sets, gets misused in the process (see both Animal Farm and 1984).

Both here and elsewhere I have assigned a different meaning to factoid than the one invented by Norman Mailer. I argued that we already have terms which cover the idea that endlessly reiterated assertions may come to be accepted by others as statements of truth even when there is no scintilla of truth for this: *propaganda*. The meaning I propose is not as pejorative as Mailer’s, but focuses on the a historical feature of statements, namely that many facts become dated because they are overtaken by new discoveries and therefore no longer reflect the evidence they were meant to summarize. Sometimes the evidence supporting a claim is only, “People say that…”. However, it is often critical to know which people supported a particular claim when there is more than one claim, who subsequently contested it — and for what reasons they support one rather than an alternate version.

For example, which toothpaste really, truly, reliably whitens teeth? I now propose that the new meaning of *factoid* implies that whatever evidence previously supported a specific claim has now become less compelling. This may be due to improved research or because new remedies have been discovered since the earlier claim was made We should always ask whether any claim can be improved upon, can be corrected, or whether it remains true in the face of new evidence and finally has withstood the test of time. To ask these questions is obligatory.

Many things, as we all now know, have failed tests over time, have not survived, for example:

  • that the earth is a stationary object in the firmament
  • that light always travels in a straight line
  • that women are inherently evil
  • that water must boil at 100 degrees Celsius
  • that the Jews killed Christian babies to use their blood in ceremonies or to bake unleavened bread
  • that the earth is flat
  • that hallucinogenic drugs enable one to see into the future
  • that language skills reflect innate intelligence

It seems as if there is a direct coupling between progress in science and technology (a distinction increasingly difficult to defend) and the abandonment of what were once thought to be indubitable verities!

The transition from a fact to a factoid refers specifically to those cases where something which had at first met all the criteria used to certify that an event was a fact, subsequently failed new tests. It means that the former statement of fact has to be de-certified! It now no longer meets critical criteria and therefore transitioned from fact to factoid.

I therefore view a factoid as a fallen angel, a verity which has become a liability. It now lacks truth. Whenever we assert that a given statement is true, we should also add that this is most probably so only for the brief moment, and not for all eternity – not even for the foreseeable future! For a wise man the future is largely unpredictable, even unfathomable; for the ignorant person the future is an extension of the present. For such persons all earlier explanation of the present must also hold for the future.

To conclude: I have rehabilitated the term *factoid* by assigning it a meaning which helps us to understand our current world better as a part of a developing situation. A factoid is therefore a claim that was made about some feature of the world which had once been secure, was viewed as part of its unchanging furniture, steady as a rock, anchored in reality, etc., whereas the test of time has demonstrated the contrary: that is was transient, not a permanent phenomenon. Indeed, the notion of a permanent phenomenon is ambiguous, and is an idea which needs to be revisited and reappraised.

In the scheme of things as outlined here, facts are viewed as the latest kids on the block but they too will become fallen angels, and pass into our history, some unnoticed, some celebrated. Some may enter a hall of fame, even after they have become blemished: e.g., the claim that the earth is flat.

One understands the present inevitably in terms of the past, that is, one has to know about the critical, salient errors made in the past since, as far as I know, there is no error-less learning, no future science without a past science whose paths were studded with pot-holes and major diversions into the unknown. Humans may stumble but many find a path that leads to somewhere.

Dedicated to Mark Reczkiewicz in grateful thanks for reminding me that one should not take human attributes, like language, out of their social context, and that our history also becomes a part of our destiny.

2 thoughts on “The Factoid : A Revised Interpretation

  1. Factoids as fallen angels – wonderful!
    One analogy I quibble with is the idea of furniture as unchanging; in some languages it is known as “the movables” (mobiliers, mobilia). Witold Rybczynski has written about this extensively. The idea actually corresponds more to the sense of facts changing, in that our use of personal space changes, with occasions and over the long term.

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