I was cooking breakfast Saturday morning when Gus came downstairs saying, “You’d be proud of me, Mom! Ever since I woke up about all I’ve been doing is reading my library books that we got yesterday, especially the dinosaur one. I’ve learned lots of facts.”
“Lots of facts? Well, good. Tell me one.”
He scrunched up his face, deep in thought, then said, “The first dinosaur bones were found by a Japanese pilot who was bombing Pearl Harbor.”
“How on earth did a pilot on a bombing mission find a dinosaur bone?” I asked.
“I guess he was taking a break.”
“Gus, the first dinosaur bone was not found by a Japanese pilot taking a break from bombing Pearl Harbor. I don’t know who found the first bone, but I know that isn’t what happened.”
“But it’s a fact!!”
I made him go upstairs to get his dinosaur book. When he came back to the kitchen with his Ultimate Dino-Pedia published by National Geographic, I asked him to find his facts and read them to me. It turns out that there were two of them.
1) “The first bones found of Spinosaurus were blown up in a German museum during World War II.” (p. 87)
2) Like the first fossils of Spinosaurus, the first bones found of Carcharodontosaurus were accidentally blown up by British bombers in World War II.” (p. 79)
Let me pause here to say that Gus has always seen the world through a very different lens from most of the rest of us. Part of that is probably due to his ADHD. Part of that is just Gus. His brain is always on fast forward. It reaches out and grabs details and facts as they go whizzing by, only there is no guarantee that the details and facts grabbed are anywhere closely related. Regardless, he takes what he has and pieces them together in ways that seem to make sense to him, but not necessarily to anyone else. Sometimes I work hard to try to recreate what bits of information he has gathered – from surrounding stimulus, from recent lessons at school, from his obsession with all things military and Star Wars, from whatever just played on the radio – to see if I can figure out how he comes to some of his conclusions.
For example, I am guessing that these are the details he grabbed when he was reading his book: “first bones found” plus “World War II” plus “bombers.” I happen to know that he is obsessed with Pearl Harbor. As far as his current thinking goes, Pearl Harbor pretty much is World War II. Pearl Harbor also means Japanese pilots. Thus, the first dinosaur bones were found by Japanese pilots bombing Pearl Harbor in World War II. And since you probably can’t find bones on the ground while flying a bomber, they must have found them while taking a break. I’m sure they were tired from all that bombing. So see? It makes perfect sense (in Gus-land), and that makes it a fact.
It is exhausting sometimes to try to follow my son’s reasoning in conversations. If I’m feeling energetic and curious, I treat it like going on a scavenger hunt. How many clues can I figure out? How many treasures can I find? If I’m tired, distracted, or if I’m trying to do other things while having the conversation, I’ll admit to tuning out and responding a lot with “Uh-huh” and “If you say so.” (No, I’m not up for the Mother of the Year Award. How did you guess?)
All of this is making me reconsider how all of us get our “facts” about the things we encounter. Goodness knows, the “facts” are flying all over the news media during this election season. Republicans line up on one side and swear that their “facts” are 100% true and infallible while Democrats line up on the other side swearing the opposite.
I watch in horror and fascination (kind of like rubbernecking at a bad accident on the highway) as the Republican candidates tear each other apart with “facts” about each other’s personal and political histories. They take little snippets from speeches made by their opponents in the past, then use them out of context to prove how horrible of a candidate that person is. “They said those things, really! You just heard it with your own ears. It’s a fact!” I look ahead to the day when there is just one candidate left standing and wonder how the party as a whole will re-spin those “facts” so that they are no longer so damaging that they derail their candidate in the Presidential election in November.
Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, attempted to speak from a woman’s perspective about women’s reproductive rights before the House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on religious liberty and the birth control rule. Rush Limbaugh responded by calling her a slut and a prostitute. After all, if she wants birth control to be covered by insurance, then that must mean she wants to be paid to have sex. And if you are paid to have sex, that makes you a slut and a prostitute. That’s a fact, right?
What is a fact, anyway? When I was growing up, a fact was indisputable, provable, a common ground from which to work. Now the word is a joke. Facts have become words used to manipulate others into doing what, from your perspective, is the “right” thing. The candidates seeking the Republican nomination aren’t the least bit interested in the facts. They want votes and the power – at whatever cost. Rush Limbaugh isn’t the least bit interested in the facts of Sandra Fluke’s personal or professional life. He sees a strong, outspoken woman and wants to intimidate her and others like her into silence. Damn the facts. Give me what I want.
My son is processing the world in the best way he knows how. He isn’t being lazy or malicious in coming up with these outlandish-sounding “facts” about dinosaur bones and Japanese fighter pilots. At the moment those words came out of his mouth, he believed them to be true. They made sense to him. I explained to him what the sentences really said, and he grinned a little sheepishly and said, “Oh. I get it now.”
I wish that every case of “fact” abuse was this innocent – that no one was really being lazy or malicious when they misrepresent truth. I wish it could always be so easy to clear up misunderstood and misstated facts. I wish all it took was examining each other’s perspectives and seeking to understand what informs our thinking and our opinions. I wish that all of us could be better at grinning sheepishly and accepting correction when we’re wrong with an easy, “Oh. I get it now.” Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.
And that’s a fact.