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When facts flutter like butterflies

By Melvin Maddocks / July 3, 1980



In the summer, when the noontime sun dazzles and twilight stages the slowest of fadeouts and everything turns into either a halo or a blur, we have been known to bring up the question: What exactly is a fact?

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In a lot circles -- a Tom Burnam's may be one of them -- the questions makes us about as popular as an ant at a picnic.

Mr. Burnam is a professor of English at Portland State University (Oregon) who has compiled two books dedicated to setting the facts straight, as they say -- "The dictionary of Misinformation" and now a sequel, "More Misinformation."

Mark Twain, Mr. Burnam tells us firmly, never lectured in a white suit, Hal Holbrook's impersonation to the contrary. (The white-suit phase came later.)

Ben Franklin did not really invent the Franklin stove. A fellow named Rittenhouse probably did.

The band was not playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the titanic sank, but the hymn "Autumn."

Well, a reader just pops another salted peanut and nibbles on another Burnam myth, and you'll never hear a complaint here when the intellectual hors d'oeuvres are tasty (and the peanuts are fresh).

Still, after a while, the suspicion begins to nag that all our very pleasant games of trivia are played by children in the dark, hanging onto the little certainties while the big uncertainties go bump in the night.

The facts we really want to know are not that Zane Grey's first name was Pearl and bix Beiderbecke played the cornet rather than the trumpet. What we wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning asking is: Can nuclear power be produced safely? What are the risks of genetic engineering? Is synfuel the answer? Or is the electric car? will the neutron bomb work? should it?

We readers and writers of newspapers are especially partial to the facts, as if in the back of our heads, where reason breaks stride and lurches into faith, we believe that when we know the facts -- all the facts -- we will know the answers -- all the answers.

Facts should not be scorned, even though they are necessarily approximate and always incomplete. We need what facts we can get, and when we don't get them -- as with Watergate, as with Vietnam -- we lose our moral balance and fall into crises.

But are the facts ever enough? Facts can add up to a sum total of frustration. After promising a destination, they may just lie there in a line.

What we finally seem to want is a higher information -- something beyond facts as we know them. Beyond all the names and dates and places. Beyond all the tables of weights and measurements.

And this hunger for something-more can drive us sober fact-lovers into the most curious and contradictory behavior. We lay down books like "More Misinformation" and run out to see movies like "The Empire Strikes Back" -- thus wedding out old myths with one hand while cultivating new myths with the hand that clutches the ticket stub.

What else does a sci-fi romance of outer space signify but a vision of reality beyond what we call reality, a set of facts beyond what we call facts?

And so, toying with computers and home-made religions, we commute between our facts and our fables, hesitating to admit that what we're after is neither, but something we used to call the truth.

No wonder we can turn petulant, as Mr. Burnam does while refuting the notion that no two snowflakes are alike. How does one know, he asks,"unless one examines and compares every snowflake, fast and present"? Then a suddenly revealing cry bursts from him: "Even if it could be done, who's to bother?"

It may be more of an answer than a question, and for a fact-cultist, a fairly devastating one.