Facts are curious things. There are empirical facts that can be independently shown to be true. And there are facts we ‘believe’ to be true, which most of us treat as if empirical.
I have to share an experience I had involving the latter.
Soon after my book on New Zealand’s engineering achievements hit the New Zealand best-seller lists in 2009 (I nearly dislodged the cookbooks!) I fielded a long and accusative letter from an engineer. Apparently I had got everything wrong in his personal territory and, he informed me, it was because I hadn’t had my work peer reviewed. In fact my material had originally been reviewed by his colleagues. But he never checked before leaping to a negative conclusion.
I think what he actually meant was I hadn’t asked him for comment. This, as far as I could tell, he took as a slight for which he then proceeded to avenge himself by proving that everything I said was wrong, even if it was backed by emprical data. For instance, he told me I was wrong over my figure for the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake casualties. I’d correctly cited the official number of 256. But this, he insisted, was wrong – which meant I was wrong.
In point of fact, the official figure is dubious – I’ve discussed that in my books on the quake and elsewhere. But there wasn’t room in my engineering book to do that, and the ‘safe’ number, sans about 1000 words of qualifying discussion, remains the official one which was in the government’s formal report on the disaster.
But the uncertainty of that number wasn’t what this guy was about. No! The ‘right’ figure for the quake, he insisted, was a very different figure he had made up. He provided me with a paper he’d written to ‘prove’ how right he was, which hadn’t used the full data set and included casualties from an air crash a week after the quake.
I declined to respond; the letter was accusative, dogmatic, and the guy wasn’t interested in reasonable discussion. All he wanted was to be told that he was right for claiming I was wrong at every turn, including when I was correct to the data. All of which, as far as I could tell, had been triggered by my asking his colleagues, and not him, to comment on my manuscript.
It takes all sorts, I suppose, and I couldn’t help thinking that the act of faith in his own convictions reflected the way he validated himself.
Probably something true of the human condition, one way and another and in various degrees.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016