I normally buy an almanac every year. But in a pandemic-book-buying-binge last month I ordered three Almanacs: World Almanac and Book of Facts 2001, the National Geographic Almanac 2021, and The Old Farmer’s 2021 Almanac.
I think I went overboard because I was feeling confined by winter, sickness, and pandemic restrictions. And maybe I thought that a couple extra books purporting to feature “facts” might balance out all the opinions and lies floating around on network news and social media. Hence the almanacs.
The almanac goes way back in history. It was a tool (older than Moses) for determining which days had the best prognosis for planting crops, getting married, buying a cow, etc. An almanac also lets you know what times the sun will rise and set each day of the year, when the planets will appear and disappear in the night-sky, when an eclipse will occur, and when the tides will rise and fall in different parts of the world.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts weather patterns throughout the year. (For our area, the winter is supposed to be “not too cold, not too wet.” But as I write this, looking out my window, I see a freezing rain, with below zero temperatures ahead in the next three days. Oh well… I guess it wouldn’t be winter without a bit of roguish rebellion from what the Old Farmer was expecting.
Modern almanacs are known for their massive collections of facts and lists, as well as their astronomical previews and astrological prognostications. It was these lists that got me addicted over 50 years ago to buying an almanac annually.
In my World Almanac and Book of Facts 2021, for example, I was able to learn the following:
Between 1950 and 1970, Americans ate twice as much American Cheese as they did real cheese. But by 2017 we are eating 47% more real cheese than the fake product. This led me to think that when it comes to cheese, these are the good ole days, not the 50s.
- The very first Miss America was Miss Washington D.C., crowned in 1921. The latest Miss America was Miss Virginia, crowned in 2020. One was named Margaret Gorman, the other named Camille Schrier. You decide which was which year.
- The violent crime rate (per thousand people) in Illinois (including Chicago) is lower than Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas…and eleven other states. If you want to stay safe, go to Maine where the rate is only one quarter that of Illinois.
- The following words and phrases were among those added to the 2020 Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: body shaming, COVID-19, crab rangoon, dad joke, pickleball, slow-walk, and truthiness.
That last word, truthiness, is worth pondering. It means “a truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something, not because of supporting facts or evidence, but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true.”
This, of course, got me to wondering how much material in my almanacs is truth …and how much is truthiness.
For example, on page 213, World Almanac and Book of Facts 2021, there is a list of the 100 top architects. They include expected names such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. The list includes designers of churches, skyscrapers, museums, monuments, and opera houses. But in looking carefully at the list, I can see only three women... out of 100. And I began to wonder if the list itself is more truthy than definitive.
When I consulted the magazine Arch20, a periodical devoted to architecture, I read an article entitled “10 Successful Female Architects You Should Know.” But only two of the ten names were in my almanac’s list. I looked at the photos in the article of what these women had created and was astonished that none of none of the other eight women were listed in my almanac. While the names of the almanac’s 100 architects were probably spelled correctly …and the buildings assigned to each architect were undoubtedly accurate, the list itself is more truthy than truthful.
Sadly, I wouldn’t even have thought to question the list if I hadn’t been reading a book my daughter recommended: Caroline Criado Perez’s 2019 work, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Sometimes we accept truthiness as the truth because we haven’t learned yet what questions to ask. Perez’s book helped me greatly in this regard.
All this runs us smack back into politics and the news media. How do we know whether something we hear or read is actually true or merely truthy? There is no easy way to tell. Verification of the truth is a demanding intellectual discipline. It involves relentless quests for data, skillful skepticism, and total obedience to the rules of reason and logic.
But arriving at the truth involves more than just verification. Verification is simply the last step of the process. The first steps in discovering the truth are attention and imagination. And discovering the whole truth requires something psychological of us: a tolerance for uncertainty. Our discomfort with uncertainty too often provokes us into jumping to truthy (but not truthful) conclusions.
So, here is a profound truth: things are not always as they seem to be. Our awareness that the truth may be something more… or different from what we’ve been told… or more than meets the eye... usually begins with an intuition or a feeling, perhaps a vague “sense” that we’re missing something. Therefore, “imagination” is often the first step in seeking the truth.
Years ago I was driving my grandmother up the interstate highway and we saw a car parked on the shoulder, a woman standing beside it. My grandmother was always a great one for fashioning a hypothesis to allay her every uncertainty. My grandmother didn’t know the woman we had passed by, nor had she witnessed what caused the woman to stop her car, get out, and stand beside it. But it only took her five minutes of speculation to reckon that the woman must have had troubles with her carburetor, didn’t have the money for a tow-truck, was waiting for a police officer to stop by (pre-cell phone days), and would have the cop call her son to come and get her.
If you knew my grandma, you might add up her imagination skills + her low tolerance for uncertainty... and hypothesize the high likelihood that she was also a hypochondriac. And your hypothesis would be correct.
Human beings are induced to hypothesize when the gaps in our knowledge begin to irritate. And when we began to imagine and hypothesize, we never know where our thinking will lead. Imagination and hypothesis sometimes leads to truth... but also to delusion. Hypotheses are capable of unlocking mysterious realities… and of spawning crazy conspiracy theories.
After all, a president of the United States couldn’t just be gunned down and history altered by Lee Harvey Oswald, a 23-year old loser. Could it? We must be missing something.
After all, our candidate couldn’t have lost the election when we saw with our own eyes all his adulating crowds. Something hidden and nefarious must have altered the outcome.
After all, a pandemic this bad couldn’t have been a freak of nature! It can’t possibly be as bad as we are being told.
True, things are not always as they seem to be. But here is my hypothesis: sometimes they just are… what they seem to be.
We should always be okay with other people using their imaginations and developing hypotheses in their discomfort. It would be foolish to try and shut that process down. And it we might miss an important insight or truth.
But it is never okay for anyone to promulgate a hypothesis or conspiracy theory, especially one that would tear up a relationship, a community, or a nation… unless we demand evidence and hold our speculations to the most rigorous examination of logic and cross-examination.
Anyway, that’s my hypothesis on why everyone is in such a ruckus these days!