You can prove anything with facts

“You can prove anything with facts,” as the excellent Stewart Lee would remind us*.  And that is no bad thing. Approached correctly, fact begets knowledge, knowledge begets wisdom, and wisdom begets insight. All of these things are in critically short supply.

The world (at least, the western world – or, at least, the western world as I perceive it) gets crazier with each passing day**. I’ve said it before, but it feels more not less true each time I say it. Fact, knowledge, wisdom and insight are beginning to seem forgotten luxuries from a bygone age of calm and reason.

We need voices of reason now more than ever. Recognising and restating core principles and values is invaluable.

The energy, the gusto, the charm of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Podcasts take me to another world. The podcast seems the perfect medium for my ridiculously long commute***. This past Thursday (10 May 2018), I was delighted to spend significantly over two hours basking in the replenishing rays of a true voice of wisdom: American astrophysicist and personification of  charm Neil deGrasse Tyson**** (chatting with podcasting force of nature Joe Rogan back in February 2017).

Tyson speaks with an incredible energy and gusto. He is boundlessly generous with his wisdom. He makes knowledge and insight accessible (for example, explaining in this particular podcast why the movies Gravity and Star Wars get so much science wrong, while Monsters, Inc gets some key things right).
He is clear and direct on the constant principles that inform his perception of the world. I love his definition of the scientific method:

“The only point of the scientific method is to make sure you are not fooled into thinking something is true that is not, or thinking something is not true that is. That is the only point. Whatever it takes to minimise the chances that you will misinterpret what you are looking at, so that you don’t think something is true that is not, or think something is not true that is. Do whatever it is to support that mission statement.”

Tyson also picks his battles. I was intrigued by his assertion that he doesn’t like to debate:

“I can’t debate [with] people, it’s not what I do. I just can’t do it. I’m an educator and I want to educate you so that you can think for yourself. But then I go away. That’s it. To debate [with] someone implies that whoever is most convincing is correct. That’s not how knowledge works. Whatever charisma level I have or don’t have, I don’t want to hinge what is true on that fact.”

Charisma too often trumps fact in our ridiculous modern world. You can prove anything with facts. But fact alone does not create insight, says Tyson. He argues that this is something that is crucially missing from our current education system:

“Your mind is a vessel into which you pour information. And at no point are we trained to turn fact into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom, and wisdom into insight. Without it, you’re just this vessel of facts.”

The game is always changing

The world isn’t going to return to how it was. It never has done so, and it never will. I wrote the following words on the day that the EU referendum result was announced in June 2016:

“The game has changed, decisively. The game is always changing. Throughout life, the metaphorical rug will always be pulled out from under our feet. The cards will always end up in the air. When they land, the hand we are dealt will never be entirely to our liking.”

How you approach the game is everything. The game is always changing, but your principles and values should not.Fact begets knowledge, knowledge begets wisdom, and wisdom begets insight. These luxuries are available to us, always. Think for yourself. You can prove anything with facts.


* Here is Stewart Lee’s masterful “You can prove anything with facts” routine.

** The Western world, from a certain point of view, shifted decisively to the other side of the looking glass with the twin populist upheavals of 2016, the Brexit vote and Trump’s accession to power. The loudest, most impassioned argument trumps fact and reason. Division is commonplace. Each day’s news takes us deeper into this unpleasant world. For example, the papers today (Saturday 12 May 2018) inform us that racism is becoming “normalised” in the UK, while the Guardian’s Marina Hynde notes that “fantasising is common among Brexit’s architects, who will eventually tell us that the problem wasn’t Brexit itself, but the way Brexit was done.”

*** Just under two hours door to door, each way. Ouch.

**** For further evidence of Mr Tyson’s incredible charm, please see also his remarkably dignified appearance on the First We Feast Hot Ones spicy chicken wings challenge.


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