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IT’S A FACT THAT . . .

IT’S A FACT ISN’T A FACT

Old fence sits against fresh green field
Old fence sits against fresh green field

IT’S A FACT ISN’T A FACT

“It’s a fact,” and “the fact is,” belong to the delete button.

Many moons ago, as health and psychology newspaper reporter, an editor assigned me to interview a young woman who had undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer.

Near the end of the interview, a friend of this woman dropped by to say “hello.” Following that, the friend sat down by the young woman, held her hand and said, “I wonder what you did to cause this?”

I wanted to punch the woman.

At the time, it was a popular notion – a fact — that humans brought illnesses, such as breast cancer, on themselves by their thoughts, stress, and actions. Some truth exists in those notions, but it blurs the full picture, something far different. Eventually, as the years passed, two more important findings –food and exercise — joined the plethora of health advice.

Once food became one of the main attractions, it produced wave after wave of health fads, some as crazy as the woman who asked her friend how she caused her own cancer.

Still to this day, medical scientists don’t know exactly what causes cancer, at least that’s what a retired friend, a former top oncologist says. Another friend, also a retired physician, a vegan, and a yoga instructor, is battling breast cancer.

Writers need to look between the lines of popular current ideologies and question everything, starting with the idea that few things in this world, are “fact,” unless it’s a happening, such as “I went to bed last night,” “that crayon is blue,” or “My kid got an award at school.” Would those actions, though, even need a “fact” phrase attached to them? Not likely.

True that fiction is a different animal than nonfiction, imagining all sorts of non-facts. Still, fact checking is often needed in some fiction, especially when it involves scene setting in real towns and cities. But those are different types of facts than using the phrase “it’s a fact that” in the written word, unless it’s a character using dialogue.

Yesterday’s “facts” become outmoded, and sometimes laughable in the face of  today’s technology, invention,  communication, science,  fact-checking, and social media. These current methods  also broaden our outlooks on accepting differences, learning, sharing, and play, to name but a few.   Writers are lucky if they enjoy   different world views today than they did in the past. It means they’ve kept on growing.

A few outmoded “facts” include: If women got the vote, it would be harmful to their reproductive organs, written as such in 1900’s encyclopedia.

Up until the 19th century, doctors in England used tobacco smoke enemas, along with bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses.

A 1935 astronomy book talks about the canals on Mars, now known to not exist.

Up until the 18th Century, many believed California was an island, and written about as such in books and journals.

Until the 16th Century most people believed that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around the earth.

It was once a fact that stress caused stomach ulcers, until it was scientifically proven that infection creates ulcers. Until about 40 years ago, doctors advised people with ulcers to drink milk to sooth the pain, something that can make it worse.

It was once considered fact that humans were born with a blank slate, or tabula rasa, with no inborn personality traits or tendencies. Humans collected their personalities, traits, talents and proclivities through experience, education, and the environment. While it’s true that early childhood experiences, the environment, and learned behavior play a huge part in development, genes, and inherited traits and behaviors are  just as important in shaping individuals.

We laugh at some of these old beliefs, but in their time people considered them as “fact” because they seemed rightful thinking, even scientific at the time. That’s the beauty of a scientific method. Scientists continually try to prove certain findings or theories false, or not quite right to either validate them, or to find them lacking. That’s how science continually advances.

Writers, especially journalists need to filter out misstatements made by politicians of all persuasions during debates, another type of scientific method. To this same effect, writers dig deep and offer well-thought-out conclusions before calling anything a “fact.” Chances are that when writers dig deep enough, and ponder an idea long enough, it will be nearly impossible to call it a “fact.”

Yesterday’s facts are tomorrow’s past. It behooves writers to consider eliminating “it’s a fact” or “the fact is,” from a manuscript, despite the possibility of a few exceptions. Still, it’s usually a good idea to also question those potential exceptions.