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Introduction | Feelings (δ) | Beliefs (γ) | Facts (β) | Ideas (α) | Conclusion

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Beta (β): Facts
Basic reality testing

Making the transition from beliefs to facts is simple: one just tests beliefs against reality, and those that pass the test are facts. Even though this new standard of evidence appears to build a bridge across a huge chasm, in reality the difference between beliefs and facts is not that great.

You might object, thinking the difference between beliefs and facts is no less than the difference between myth and reality. This is true, but like most truths, there's more to the story.

Here's an example. Bob, a 17-year-old newly licensed driver, believes he can stop the family car on a dime. Several months into his career as a driver, he discovers his belief is false — he skids, hits something, dents the car and receives a lecture about stopping distances from a policeman.

The policeman tells Bob that, at 40 miles per hour, after Bob reacts and steps on the brake, the car requires 80 feet to come to a stop on dry pavement. Bob manages to notice that his car's stopping distance in feet was twice the numerical value of its speed in miles per hour. Now Bob has moved from belief to fact. What he doesn't know is that his new fact is nearly always wrong.

The very next week he invites all his friends to go for a ride, and, armed with his impressive new fact, he tell them he can safely go 80 miles per hour, so long as he allows 160 feet to stop his car. Boys being boys, they decide to test this assumption — and crash through a fence, destroying the family car and releasing 500 angry chickens.

The reason? Bob has falsely assumed that knowing a fact is a huge improvement over knowing nothing at all. But knowing a simple fact is only marginally better than knowing nothing. Bob has mistakenly assumed, because a stopping distance of 80 feet is required at 40 miles per hour (not counting reaction time), therefore 160 feet must be required at 80 miles per hour.

Bob has just fallen into the most common misconception in contemporary American life — that knowing facts makes you smart. American education is built on this foundation, and this is why American students know next to nothing about reality.

In truth, all facts spring from ideas, and if you do not understand the idea behind the fact, you have not learned anything. Bob absorbed the fact that his car could stop in 80 feet if he was traveling 40 miles per hour (neglecting reaction time), but the accident was caused by what he didn't learn — the idea behind the fact. Even though the fact was true, Bob and his friends could have been killed by it!

The underlying idea, by the way, is that moving objects carry an energy that is proportional to their mass multiplied by the square of their speed (this is the physics definition of kinetic energy). Because of this underlying idea, Bob's car needed 320, not 160, feet to stop at 80 miles per hour, not counting his time to react.

Instead of learning this idea, Bob learned a fact that can only be applied to a car, on dry level pavement, going 40 miles per hour, after he has reacted and pressed the brake pedal. The usefulness of this fact is arbitrarily close to zero. By contrast, the kinetic energy idea can be applied to any object in the universe, going nearly any speed.

Schools that teach only facts train people for a lifetime of intellectual poverty and dependence. The true riches in education are not facts, but ideas. Facts are like leaves on a tree — the tree is the idea that produces the foliage of facts. If a leaf falls from a tree, it quickly dies. In the same way, if a fact is separated from the idea that created it, it loses all meaning. Just ask Bob.

It is not an exaggeration to say we live in a country of fact consumers — people who know how to acquire facts, but cannot assimilate the ideas that created the facts. As a result, students know there are three branches of government (a fact), but cannot explain why (an idea).

Another example — people know it is hot in the summer, but most don't know why. Astonished? In a recent survey, some Harvard graduates were asked this very question — why is it hotter in summer than in winter? Most believed it was because the Earth is closer to the sun in the summertime (wrong: it's the Earth's axial tilt that creates the seasons).

A reliance on facts is incredibly inefficient compared to actually becoming educated, and it is hard to understand why it is thought more efficient to fill students' brains with facts instead of ideas. Well, I can think of one reason fact-based education is so popular — people who rely on facts cannot generally assemble facts into ideas, or discover those facts that contradict each other, so in general they are more docile, easier to rule.

What does it mean to “assemble facts into ideas?” Well, let's say your entire world is a tropical beach. First, you build your grass shack right by the water. But by that afternoon (grass shacks don't take that long to build), the water has crept up the shore and washed your house away.

So the next day, you watch the entire day to see how far up the beach the water will go. You put a stick at the high water mark, and then you build your house again. But seven days later, the water climbs up the beach much higher than before, and washes your house away again.

Over years of time, you notice the changes in the tides (facts), and you gradually notice the tide is highest when the moon is full or new (correlation: a kind of fact). Then one night you have a dream — the moon is actually a big planet like Earth, floating in the sky, and as it passes overhead, it pulls on the water, making the water crawl up the beach. Then you notice when the sun and the moon are aligned, the water is pulled more than other times — the sun and moon are like partners, sometimes pulling in concert, sometimes puling in different directions. You have assembled your observations (facts) into an idea.

At this point you have a choice. You can simply share your knowledge with the tribe, tell the young people to watch the moon: when it is full or new, it's a good time to dig for clams (a fact). And you can explain why you think this is true (the idea), so the young people can pass the learning on. On the other hand, you could appoint yourself High Priest and dispense facts to the uneducated — “I will tell you when to dig for clams. I can do this because God tells me his secrets.” The difference between these two choices is no less than the difference between one who actually loves his tribe, and one who is a natural parasite.

But remember about this story that no one can appoint himself High Priest unless the people in the tribe are too intellectually lazy to observe the world for themselves, to dare a peek beneath the outer layer of reality. Every story about a tyrant, about a cult leader, is actually two tragic stories — one about the leader, one about the ignorant followers.

Please remember the beach story — if you are only being taught facts, you may be in the presence of a preacher instead of a teacher. But don't jump to conclusions — you need to ask to be taught the underlying ideas, to be shown the tree hidden behind the leaves. Want to find out which is true (preacher or teacher)? Simple — ask your teachers why. If they won't tell you, change schools.

In summary, facts are only the leaves in an idea tree. Without the tree, the leaves die. Facts can never be more than tiny parts of a whole. A person who only has access to facts is dangerous to himself and others, and is scarcely better off than someone stuck in belief.

Dependence on facts alone is just a different version of dependence on beliefs. The faces change — teachers instead of preachers — but the reality is the same: you have no personal power. Someone else interprets reality for you. You're still stuck. For this reason, the fact level can only be a steppingstone to the level of ideas.

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