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by Richard Nilsen
In 1974, the surrealist comedy team, Firesign Theater, released an album titled, Everything You Know is Wrong. Surprisingly, they were right.
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Take China, for instance. We have been told that China is 3,000 years old, or 5,000 — take your number — as if the entity we today call China were unchanging in all that time. But in reality, the national identity of China has changed constantly.
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Looked at more closely, the history of China is one of various dynasties, varied national borders, conglomerations of multiple nations coalescing and dividing and joining again and absorbing territory from its edges, being invaded and ruled by non-Chinese emperors, and reasserting its Han ethnic identity, despite the large numbers of non-Han peoples now circumscribed by its current borders. China has not been static over those millennia. It has been a bubbling cauldron of instability and change.
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.You only have to look at the varied maps over time to see that what we tend to call China moves around the map of the Asian continent almost as much as Poland has moved around the map of Europe.
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If we thought about Europe the same way we tend to think about China, then there is no reason we shouldn’t say that France is 30,000 years old, because the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet are that old, and the kind of naturalistic drawing evidenced in those caves is characteristic of European art as we tend to think of it.
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So, why do we think of China as an unchanging entity, but recognize France as having emerged from Roman Gaul and the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne, and becoming France only slowly?
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Clearly, there is a bias somewhere here, a view that we have a more detailed understanding of what is closer to us, and a dim and uncertain view of what is “other” and foreign. “They” are unchanging, while we constantly evolve.
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But I don’t mean to be writing about China, but about what we consider knowledge. What we know is almost always wrong, or, if not wrong, always more complicated than we allow.
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I think of Cliff Clavin, the mailman on the TV show, Cheers, who was a nattering fountain of facts. “It’s a little known fact that smartest animal is a pig. Scientists say if pigs had thumbs and a language, they could be trained to do simple manual labor.”
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Clavinisms include a good deal of what we hear as “fact” on the internet, when we read “Top 5 Countries with the Most Fatalities on Everest” or “Top 5 Countries with the Most Women in Parliament.” They make up all the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” cartoons (“An 8-year-old Ohio boy taught himself to drive by watching YouTube, and
he drove to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with his little sister on April 9, 2017. He didn’t commit any traffic violations!”), and the basis of many frightening schoolyard myths that little boys impress each other with (“If you stab yourself with a pencil, you get lead poisoning.”)
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Needless to say, most such Clavinisms are either demonstrably false, or self-contradictory (the Ohio boy did commit a traffic violation: He drove without a license), or — more often — missing contextual complexity.
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And it is this complexity that usually stumps us. Almost any fact, taken individually, is refutable with enough context, because the world is not made up of discrete bits, but of a web of interrelations, and every bit complicates every other bit.
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It is why we can argue interminably over the cause of the Civil War or whether behavior is learned or innate. How many of each animal did Noah take on the Ark? Depends on which verses of the Bible you consult.
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Facts are the defense of the young. When we are so young that we still know everything, we can assert with confidence that marijuana is not addictive, or that abortion is murder. When we enter college, we are all Cliff Clavins. It takes a lifetime of being humbled before the complexity of the world that we come to understand how little we actually know.
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I remember well when I knew everything. I knew that war was unnecessary, that the maturity of my elders was equal parts exhaustion and cowardice, that evil in the world was merely a product of ignorance. Later, after drinking too shallowly of the Pierian Spring in college classes, I knew that everything was relative, and that there was no such thing as universal truth. I have recently been face to face with the fact that there is at least one universal truth, expressed in Brahms’ German Requiem: “Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.”
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Recently, my wife would complain when she asked a question and I answered, as I increasingly did in later years, “I really don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” and she would say, “You used to be able to answer all my questions. Why can’t you do that anymore?” The reason is that all the answers have become muddied. There is too much husk and not enough seed. How can you answer a question such as “Why did Napoleon fail in Russia?” without beginning with the Greeks and Scythians 2,500 years earlier? It is all connected. Each answer requires a book, and even the book is only a summation. “I don’t know” can also mean “I don’t know how to give an answer that doesn’t distort the case by oversimplifying.” And, “I don’t know because while I have the surface information, I don’t know the background well enough to explain it.”
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It can be easier to accept the Clavinism: The Romans had a room where, after eating too much, they would go to vomit (a “vomitorium” was really the exit portal of a sports stadium); Einstein failed math in school (no, he didn’t); Napoleon was short (he was average height for his time); we only use 10 percent of our brains (perhaps true for certain politicians, but not for the rest of us).
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Such factoids give us the illusion of knowledge. But, even when they are superficially true, they miss the swirling, gurgling complexity of the real world, the interrelatedness of history, the unknowability of parts of the cosmos.
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This is not a plea to surrender to ignorance, but rather a call to embrace humility. The ability to recognize that you don’t know isn’t an end, but a beginning: It is the prod to learn more. I am now 69 and I feel like I am barely turning the first page of a book.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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