Friday, March 25, 2011

"Facts" Are Not Always Facts

The Desk Column of the Catholic Times had an interesting understanding of Napoleon Bonaparte's stature, which is understood by most to have been short. Students who are short have looked to Napoleon to give them hope and confidence when competing with their taller peers. When hearing this was not the case, they tend to have doubts about other long-held beliefs.

The columnist gives two reasons for the misunderstanding. Those who were guarding Napoleon were the pick of the army and taller than normal. In comparison to them--and he was often in their company--he looked short. Secondly, after he was sent into exile to the island of St. Helena where he died, the report of the postmortem examination stated that he was 5.2 pied. Converted to standard English measurements, he was 167.6 cm (5' 6-1/2") which was slightly taller than the average Frenchman of that time.  When the English took pied to be their feet, they came up with 158.5 cm (slightly more than 5' 2") and the misunderstanding about Napoleon's height began.

What happened in the case of Napoleon is found in not a few cases in history. A fact of life Napoleon knew well--having manipulated facts throughout his career to further his own ambition--when he said, "History is a set of lies people have agreed upon." And these agreements about facts (when not outright lies) that are not facts often result from a trusting and unquestioning attitude about the validity of long-held beliefs.

The columnist then turns to the Four River Project and the protests of many religious groups to stop the government's plan to develop the rivers to ensure a better water supply. He sees this controversy as embodying the same kind of confusion that surrounds Napoleon's height. The  government sees the project as necessary for the economic health of the area, creating thousands of jobs and revitalizing the countryside along the four rivers.  This is illusory, says the columnist. It is not what is happening. And even members of the government, he says, are not seeing the practicality of the project, as was promised. 

Improving the quality of the water by improving the 'containers' is what is being said by the government. But they are not using, he says, our standards of water quality, which raises doubts about the other standards they are using.

The talk that the project will enhance the ecological life of the river basins and beautify the rivers is one-sided thinking and narrow-minded. Without backing their claim with proof, their talk doesn't deserve to be considered rational.

During Lent we are  trying to extend our vision, concludes the columnist.  Let us see how this lesson on the confusion and misunderstanding surrounding Napoleon's height can help us be more discerning and less gullible about the many subtle deceptions that are sometimes unwittingly passed along because they've been accepted for so long, and sometimes deliberately passed along because they serve someone's vested interests.

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