Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Doctor, Doctor

This quote, if I remember correctly, is from the episode "The Face of Evil;" the Fourth Doctor episode in which Louise Jameson makes her debut as one of the Doctor's most popular companions, Leela. It's been making the rounds of the Left side of my social media community for a while, as an implicit criticism as what is often portrayed as the Right's unwillingness to conform their view of the world to objective reality.

But Facts are funny things. Not because they're changeable, but because we often don't know what they are. And so we misuse the term. The word atom comes to us from the Greek, "atomon" which mean "indivisible." And to a degree, that's correct; an atom is the smallest unit of matter that has elemental chemical properties. But we now understand that atoms are no longer the smallest unit of matter there is. What we once thought was a fact has changed, because our view of things changed - along the line we became able to perceive things smaller than an atom. And so the facts changed as our ability to view the world changed. Now, for instance we say that electrons are thought to be indivisible, because they have no known smaller constituent parts. But I think that one would be hard pressed to find a scientist who would say that the indivisibility of the electron is a fact. And chemistry isn't the only area in which things that were once thought to be facts have fallen by the wayside. History is littered with former facts that were later demonstrated to be untrue by a different set of observations.

And so the reality of things, at least to me, seems to be that facts and views have a symbiotic relationship. They work together to create the world we live in. But because they work together, we often blur the lines between them, and as a result, we often use fact-checking as a manner of feel-checking. We expect other people's subjective experience of the world in which they live to conform to a certain set of facts that we understand to be true about that world. That's why we trot out facts when people say they feel discriminated against, threatened or left behind. But the facts don't matter if you don't encounter them in your life as it's lived. When I was learning chemistry, back in the day, the common illustration of an atom was a cluster of protons and neutrons, with electrons gathered around them in nice circular orbits, meant to be indicative of spheres. Of course, if one could actually see an atom in real time and space, it wouldn't look like that. The "solar system" model of the atom is useful, but not the way they actually work. But what difference does that make to me in my day-to-day life? None. And so, if you ask me to draw an atom on a whiteboard, you're going to end up with something that would a person from the 1950s would easily recognize. I don't need my facts to be any more accurate than that.

To be sure, this is a trivial example, of no consequence to anyone other than a few frustrated chemistry or physics pedants. But there are other examples. For example, in my experience, overt expressions of racial animosity are rare. This allows me to be fairly comfortable in a suburb that is overwhelmingly White. For many Black people I knew when I was growing up, ability to walk down the street without seeing racism under every rock earned me the labels of "asleep" or "confused." And it was a prime example of changing the facts to fit a view, rather than changing the view to fit the facts. To be sure, I saw more racism in the world around me than many of my White peers, but for some Black people I met, my not seeing a race-based slight in nearly every interaction I had with Whites was nothing short of willful bad faith. One of my favorite examples was from college. The school had been sued over discriminatory hiring at some point, and so had been made to embark on a more balanced hiring plan. Some of the people who worked in the cafeterias struck us as barely capable of doing their jobs, and when they were Black, they became proof that the University had deliberately hired the most idiotic, incompetent people they could find, in the service of being able to say that Black people were simply too dim to do the work. Pointing out to people that minimum-wage jobs, especially menial ones with long hours that required tolerating snarky college students, rarely attracted the cream of the crop turned out to be unhelpful. People looked at the world around them, applied their understanding of how things worked and derived a set of obvious facts from that, that in turn, informed the way they looked at the world. And secure in our own objectivity, we regarded incompatible worldviews as suspect.

Doctor Who, for all that it's a fun show (or at least it was for me when I was devouring the exploits of Tom Baker's portrayal of the character) is not necessarily a good guide for reality, at it's put together by people who are writing to entertain, rather than philosophers. The Doctor's quips and observations of the universe were designed to work within the world that myriad writers has created over the years. And the Doctor was almost always right, even if for no other reason than his thoughts and actions mean that the show would continue. We don't live in fictional worlds. I think. And the real one is more nuanced than a late 70s/early 80s science-fantasy romp needs to be.

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