Fact-Free: Where No Center Holds

Facts were fuzzy in the ancient world.  From Homer to Herodotus, from Thales to Plotinus, from the Old Testament to the New, myth, science, and history met and mingled, merging into amalgams that were almost invariably greater than the sum of their parts and yet less than what might pass our modern-day tests of peer review, placebo control, double-blindness, and so on.  In his 1986 essay, “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” the prominent French thinker and sociologist Bruno Latour accounts for the transition from these “soft” facts to the “hard” facts of more recent centuries.  Citing the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein, he argues that the move from fuzzy facts to cold, hard ones was not a matter of mindsets but of technologies:

Again and again [Eisenstein] shows that before the advent of print every possible intellectual feat had been achieved—organized skepticism, scientific method, refutation, data collection, theory making—everything had been tried, and in all disciplines: geography, cosmology, medicine, dynamics, politics, economics and so on.  But each achievement stayed local and temporary just because there was no way to move their results elsewhere and to bring in those of others without new corruptions or errors being introduced.  For instance, each carefully amended version of an old author was, after a few copies, again adulterated. ...

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