Eternal Truth

The eroding certainty of knowledge

Easily my favorite game show is the BBC’s Q.I. (a.k.a. “Quite Interesting”), hosted by the planet’s honorary ombudsman, Stephen Fry. I guess you’d call it a trivia quiz. But really the object is for the four panelists, usually comedians, to be interesting, to be witty – even more often than they’re correct.

A recent episode was themed around the Half-Life of Facts. Essentially, the program’s creator, John Lloyd, went back through the show’s earlier seasons and collected knowledge which has since been proven inaccurate. Once, for example, the host reported that there was no way to accurately tell the age of a lobster. But by the time of this Q.I. retrospective, marine biologists had learned that the lobster’s eye stalk was the key to dating it.

This constant expiration and renewal of knowledge (recently popularized by author Samuel Arbesman) comes as no surprise to teachers of media production. When I first started editing, I routinely cut my fingers. Now very little about the physical, linear assembly of cellulose acetate truly describes even the thought processes at work in contemporary post-production.

It is not merely that editors have exchanged razor blades for digital interfaces. Modern audiences aren’t as psychologically disoriented by jump cuts as they once were. The governing principles, the effects – in significant addition to the mechanics of editing – have changed. Filmmakers do and understand things differently than they did them even five years ago.

Cancelleria Relief commissioned by the Roman Emperor Domitian c. 90AD — and already out of date.

Contrast the panic of our discipline (are we as perishable as our knowledge? only as evergreen as the latest file types and camera models?) with a faculty dinner I attended. I was seated to the left of a professor of Classics. He held forth at some length on the difficulties of remaining current in his discipline. I was (silently, politely) thunderstruck. I could not (still cannot) imagine what is new in the fields of Greek mythology and Latin.

Lives lived among online forums and Vimeo tutorials make me, my students, and their parents increasingly suspicious of “eternal truths.” If a fact has no half-life, if it hasn’t the humility to admit the possibility of its passing relevance, shouldn’t we question its usefulness?

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