Just the Facts, Please | March 2000

FMBR Editorial: March, 2000

Just the Facts, Please

Marshall Pease

In this time of serious political ferment, we are being inundated with what are claimed to be facts. Friendly facts asserting all the fine things a candidate has done and what he will or won’t do. Not-so-friendly facts about the opposition claiming why they cannot be trusted. Yet, what is a fact? A candidate claims he listens to the people and knows their needs. His enemies claim he shifts with every new poll. If both statements are taken literally and examined closely for what they assert, they say essentially the same thing. Yet what a difference in the message!

Are there any “pure” facts? I doubt it, at least not in the human context. What is cited as a fact may use only true data, but the relevance of the so-called fact depends on its relationship to other “facts” and conditions. The statement that the sun rose this morning is, presumably a fact which most people would accept as elemental, a “pure” fact which stands alone. Yet its significance lies in the profound impact that event has had on our very existence. It not only is the basis of the present, but is the source of our hope of continuing out existences into whatever the future holds. It is, indeed, far from being a “pure” fact.

Modern research on memory argues strongly that we do not record data per se. We do not store “snap shots” of moments or movies of our lives. Some people have thought we record, at some level, everything we have ever experienced. It was assumed that the only question was how to access what has been stored.. This does not seem to be the current belief. We have all heard how eye-witnesses describe a violent and traumatic scene staged by the experimenter. At best, what is reported is fragmentary and often just plain wrong. More recently the same thing has been found in experiments which do not involve trauma or even drama. Again, what is stored in long-term memory always seems to be related to the subject’s own interests and experience.

The evidence seems strong that people remember what has direct significance to them and, if they are asked to recall an event after some time, they use these fragments to reconstruct what might have happened. As a result, the recollection is almost always fragmentary and often contains elements totally absent from the original event. This view of the process seems necessary to account for the errors and lapses that occur. (Cf., for example, Daniel L. Schacter, Searching for Memory, Basic Books, 1996). It appears that we do not record data but rather the patterns that connect data.

If this is the nature of memory, it must impose sharp limits – and probably distortions – on what we can think. This is true not only of “chit-chat” and gossip, it must also be true of serious work in the sciences, the humanities, and even in the deepest philosophic thought. Some of these limits are imposed by the culture, a view whose significance is being emphasized by the recent emphasis on deconstructionism. That view, as I understand it, hopes to eliminate the cultural bias or, if this is not entirely possible, then at least to minimize it. On an individual level, the idea that memory acts through such a mechanism implies that each of us operates out of a unique set of patterns of thought derived from our own, individual matrix of relationships and associations. These patterns which we assimilate over our lives must largely determine – and probably distort – how we understand our own selves and beingness -- and hence what we can become. All of this argues that the phenomenon is a very serious one that lies at the foundation both of our individual lives and the collective life of the culture and the world. It is a sobering thought.

Marshall Pease, Mar 2000