2 min read

Your fact is not fun

Humanity has greater access to facts than ever before in our history. That's not necessarily a good thing.

For many years, I believed that glass was a slow-moving liquid. Perhaps "belief" is too strong a word: I passed it along as a "fun fact". A quirky thing that seems counter-intuitive, but is actually true. Except, in this case, it's actually false. Glass is not a slow-moving liquid.

This myth seems to be derived from medieval European windows. The windows are thick on the bottom and thin at the top. If glass was a slow-moving liquid – slow on the order of hundreds of years – that would explain the thick-bottomed windows. Gravity slowly pushed the glass down from the top to the bottom. But the variable thickness of medieval European glass windows actually came about because of the production process. Nothing to do with the force of gravity over hundreds of years.

Many "fun facts" are just wrong. You see this with commonly repeated myths about historic figures. Or in "just-so" stories about businesses that fall apart once you scrutinize them. But wrong or right, all fun facts travel the same fun fact highway. And the lanes are getting wider and wider all the time.

Many people talk about misinformation circulating through our information networks – that's just information that is not true. There's also disinformation, which implies that someone spread the falsehood to achieve a particular purpose. But there's also just plain information pollution. This is when the tide of information becomes a flood, drowning meaning in the process.

Fun facts don't have to be wrong to be... unhelpful. My son has watched a lot of videos about rockets. There's videos about the tallest rockets ever made. There's videos about the largest rocket explosions. There's videos about the fastest rockets. About the biggest rocket building mistakes. There's videos about every conceivable aspect of rockets. The facts in these videos may be true, but are they important?

We might as well ask about the bluest rockets, the cleanest rockets, the most phallic-looking rockets, the widest rockets, the rockets with the most volume. Modern technology has given us the unending capacity to record, search up, and re-package facts. And it's not just the capacity – the incentives to produce gobs of internet content create fun fact industries, churning out "Did you know?" content faster than people can possibly consume them.

Embedded within this process – either leading to it or emanating from it – is a warped culture of knowledge. A blurring of lines between knowledge and entertainment. An emphasis on superficialities over understanding. A preference for definitiveness over uncertainty.

I like my facts to be true. But I also like them to be relevant.