Fact or fiction?

Confronted with ‘alternative facts’, it’s reassuring to compare them with what we know to be fact. However, fact is not so easily distinguishable from fiction as the following extract  illustrates.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Confronted with the so-called ‘alternative facts’ of politicians and others in positions of influence and the deep-seated anxiety they can provoke, it’s reassuring to compare their fabrications with the truth of the reliable reality we call fact. Unfortunately, on closer examination, fact is not so clearly distinguishable from fiction as the following extract from the draft of The Boy in the Book illustrates.

In this extract, Bea, who is the young heroine of the story, is in heated discussion with Priscilla, a professor who researches the frontier between reality and fiction, while in the kitchen Manuela, Bea’s friend and guardian, is busy preparing tea.

Extract from The Boy in the Book

“It’s a paradox,” Priscilla said, startling Bea. She had no idea what Priscilla was talking about.

“I don’t follow,” she admitted.

“You are very much attached to the distinction between fiction and reality. I suspect that dividing line helps you make sense of the world. Yet at the same time, you are continually transgressing the boundaries between the two. That contradiction subjects you to considerable tension. Surely the distinction is never so clear cut. At the same time, you seek to exclude the negative or the evil from your stories. In so doing, you adhere more or less unwittingly to a rigid polarisation between good and evil, when in fact the distinction is far from obvious.”

Bea was still grappling with the old woman’s ideas when Manuela called them, saying tea was ready. “Surely the distinction between fact and fiction is capital?” Bea finally said. “Don’t we battle against the trumped up rubbish that politicians dish up every day? Don’t we seek to know if the story a neighbour tells about the woman across the street is true? Don’t we trust science because the results of its experiments have been rigorously verified?”

“True,” Priscilla said, settling in her armchair. “But traces of unverified stories contaminate every fact we take for granted. Your scientist, for example. Have not his expectations influenced the outcome of his experiments? You yourself spoke of the impact of the observer in quantum mechanics. What’s more, the man’s expectations are based on ‘stories’ he tells himself about the world, stories that go unquestioned, including about science and how it works. Are those ‘stories’ not reality embroidered with very unscientific threads of imagination? Or that neighbour you mentioned. She knows what she saw. There can be no doubt. But what of her expectations, her understanding of the world? Can it be trusted? Or is what she knows to be fact not based on a worldview that is run though with her own personal fictions? We are telling ourselves tales all the time. It’s how we make sense of the world. Yet we are mostly unaware we are doing it. Unadulterated fact doesn’t exist. It is always shot through with fiction.”

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