I love stories. Before I could read, I begged adults to read stories to me. I was glued to the radio for The Lone Ranger, Sergeant Preston, The Squeaking Door, The Shadow and many other dramas of the forties. Once I learned to read, there was no limit to the stories I devoured. Yet there came a point, somewhere between the age of ten and twelve, when I asked myself how much of this stuff was true? And how can you tell the difference between truth and fiction?
There were some obvious clues: animals don’t speak our language, people don’t fly like birds, and Santa is Dad. But some other questions were more puzzling, like was Walden a record of actual events, or did Thoreau invent part or all of it? This question became particularly vexing when I read Freud as a teenager: is this real, or is he making it up?
Later in life I discovered that my early wondering was an important and valid study in philosophy called epistemology, or what is knowledge, or as one of my mentors put it, how do you know what you think you know is true?
The answer to that question is sometimes simple, and sometimes baffling. For example, Galileo tested the time-honored belief that big things fall faster than little things, and found out it was false with a simple test that anybody could repeat at home. A modern puzzlement is misnamed chaos theory — it should be called order theory — wherein millions of apparently random chaotic events result in predictable order, which can only be observed with a computer, or in a free society, such as it is permitted to exist.
The point is, you can only know you are right by testing what you think is right, and then observing the test results. Some will object that this is only one school of thought. True, but it is the school of thought that makes airplanes fly, makes cars run, and makes the light switch do something useful. The other schools of thought practice what I call "selective subjective speculation on the nature of reality," or BS.
I do not deny the validity of intuition, or revelation, or inspiration — I do not know how living consciousness interacts with this universe — but the results must still be subjected to testing before being accepted as valid. It is said that Maxwell envisioned his equations, without which we would not have radio and television, while boarding a carriage. How does a man figure out electromagnetic propagation before there is electricity? I don’t know, but nobody praised him for it until they proved he was right.
The challenge to distinguish truth from fiction has departed the halls of academia, and has entered every living room in the civilized world. Are politicians telling us the truth? No. The evidence that they lie grows daily. More and more people are learning to invert what politicians tell them to approximately understand the truth.
The US military is winning means the US military is losing. The US economy is growing means the US economy is shrinking. Homeland Security makes us safer means that Homeland Security makes us more vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to spend money you haven’t got means get out of debt ASAP. No new taxes means new taxes. No draft means a draft. Trust US means beware.
Even so, none of us want to tell our kids that Hobbits never existed, or that their public school teachers are either too ignorant to know the truth, or are lying to them. I used to read my kids’ textbooks (back when home schooling was illegal), and delicately explain the parts that weren’t true. I never openly criticized their teachers, I handled that in person, but if they doubted me, we looked up the subject together.
As an aside, the only time I got blindsided was after the kids went to college, when I accidentally discovered that they were being fed B.F. Skinner BS in a required course. Needless to say, we had a little discussion about who owned the contents between whose ears, and who was in charge of whose life. Skinner was consigned to his tax-supported box.
As any fiction writer, screen writer, or speech writer knows, fiction must be sandwiched between fact to be believable; I mean, the heroine may not have three arms. Lying politicians get caught when their sandwich of facts disintegrates, and they are left with pure fiction, which we, the people, can easily test these days. The fiction of political government serving our interests is crumbling before our eyes, and much as I love fiction, I’m not sorry to see this one exposed.