Monday, January 13, 2014

A SILLY IDEA

Have you ever had what you thought was a good idea but remained silent because you were afraid people would laugh at you? Have you ever regretted voicing an idea when people had a good horse laugh about how silly you were? If your answer is yes to the second question, it is almost certainly yes to the first.

I have had my face reddened many times because people thought that something I said was a ridiculous idea. I vividly remember being corrected by a world-renowned expert on everything (at least that’s what he thought) for having the stupid idea that Leon Spinks had a chance to beat Muhammad Ali. The expert said he personally knew Ali and there was no way Spinks could win. Of course 20/20 hindsight shows that Ali was so overconfident he lost his first fight with Spinks.
I said all this to make the point that seemingly silly ideas often are not silly at all. And I made that point to keep you from laughing as I share  another silly idea of mine.

First, the problem my silly idea addresses: Although English is a language which is rich in synonyms, there is one area where we don’t have enough words. Just as the Eskimos are reputed to have a multitude of names for snow, I think we need multiple words for “fact.” I’ve always disliked making the objection “facts not in evidence” because half the time I objected, the “facts” weren’t facts. We’ve got an either/or view of truth and falsehood, but sometimes truth and falsehood aren’t either/or propositions. For example, the New Testament refers to Pilate as a procurator, but he wasn’t. He was a praetor, as evidenced by a recently-discovered ancient inscription where Pilate refers to himself as a praetor. This discrepancy doesn’t mean that the Bible is false. The evangelists were describing Pilate as the governor of Judea. Most provincial governors were procurators. They can be forgiven for choosing almost, but not quite, the correct label for Pilate. Even Tacitus, who is admired as the greatest Roman historian, called Pilate a procurator. Most facts are like this—imprecise.

We have some imprecise facts in the story of Abraham Lincoln's Almanac Trial. Over the years historians haven't been able to agree on where the moon was when Pres Metzker got killed. Some have it on the eastern horizon, some on the western; some say it hadn’t risen yet, some that it had just set; some say there was no moon at all that night. They can’t all be right. I recently read a book on the trial which roundly criticized some historians for getting the moon in the wrong place. I think it’s important to know precisely where the moon was, but I’m not ready to condemn other writers’ imprecise placement of the moon. Most of them were wrong about where the moon was, but they were absolutely right about where it wasn’t—and that was what was important. The eyewitness said the moon was high overhead, and it wasn’t, which called his identification of the killer into question. Where was the moon really? I undertook an extensive investigation of the question in Abraham Lincoln's Most Famous Case: The Almanac Trial, and I answer it in the chapter entitled “The Misplaced Moon.”     

Second, my silly idea: I propose two new words for the English language—ffact and phact. Here’s how I see it working. “Ffacts” would be data which have the important point right and are near 100% accurate. I borrowed the idea for the spelling of the word from the technical term “iff,” which means if and only if. “Phacts” would be data which have the important point right, but are less than 50% accurate. I got the spelling for “phact” because “ph” sounds like “f” but isn’t. “Facts” would then be data which have the important point right and are more than 50% accurate. Fiction would remain data which have the important point wrong, no matter how accurate they may be.

Let’s apply my system to the question of Pilate’s office in Judea. (1) It is a ffact that he was a praetor. Pilate’s importance to history stems from the fact that he ruled Judea, and he occupied the office of praetor. (2) It is a fact that Pilate was governor of Judea. This doesn’t tell us his precise office, but it tells us that he ruled Judea. There is a margin for error here, but it isn’t important. (3) It is a phact that Pilate was a procurator. This datum tells us what was important about Pilate—he ruled Judea—but it gets his precise office wrong.

I think it’s a neat system which can serve to add clarity to many discussions. A lot of information gets branded as fiction when it is really phact, and we can be misled into thinking that people are spouting fiction when in truth, they are giving us phacts--data which is inaccurate, but which gets the important information right. That's why  I cringe when I see a book with a title which promises to uncover lies and half-truths about historical events. I fear that they are debunking phacts in order to advance some agenda or the other.