When I was reading LJ this morning, I saw a reply from a friend to a comment I'd left in their journal. And for reasons having pretty much nothing to do with my friend or anything they said, I found myself staring at the screen with my jaw on the floor, going wha?
Backing up a little: This is a pretty innocuous conversation, but locked, so I'm not going to say anything that could identify the other person. So for the sake of filing off the serial numbers, I want to be able to talk abstractly about the taxonomy of knowledge: Foo and Bar are high level divisions of knowledge — broad scientific fields that you'd expect even a small liberal arts school to offer a major in. My friend works in Foo. (Hmm. A name sure would be handy.... Sound effect of rummaging through a closet....
Darian, like many of you, has a PhD and works in a STEM field. As with most of us, this means they sometimes find themselves using tools borrowed from a neighboring field. Darian recently wrote about an ongoing project that has involved stretching their skills with one such tool — a software tool that I have glancing familiarity with, but of a genre I'm very familiar with. This particular tool was developed mainly by and for specialists in Baz, which is a subfield of Bar. My reply to Darian's post was basically a paragraph of knowing commentary on learning new tools of that sort. Darian's reply to me mentioned in passing that they hadn't studied Bar formally since high school.
And that's when it got weird: Somewhere in my head, marked fact with the same sort of casual certainty as, say, Avenue of the Americas is really 6th Avenue or Laura speaks German, was the belief — until this morning I'd have said the fact — that Darian's undergraduate major was Bar.
Like everyone else, my brain is littered with non-facts that I believe. I try to fix those when they're brought to my attention. And part of the process of fixing them generally involves asking myself How did I come to believe this wrong thing? Generally I'm able to come up with a plausible explanation of how I came to be misinformed. (Not necessarily the explanation, but one that makes sense. Man is the rationalizing animal and all that.)
But in this case that doesn't obtain, and I knew that as soon as I saw Darian's sentence. There's no plausible way for me to have acquired this fact other than for Darian to have said at some point I majored in Bar in college. And no plausible reason for Darian to have lied to me about this fact. Which means that the random firing of my neurons has conspired to plant in my brain a falsehood, dressed as a fact. Not an especially important falsehood. Nor, when I thought it was a fact, would I have thought it an especially important fact. What's flummoxing me — what flummoxed me from the moment I read Darian's reply this morning — is that this is my brain revealing itself to be an unreliable witness in a way I had never encountered before. A way that feels vary unsettling.
1 For some reason I've long since forgotten, I have a text file with the thousand most popular baby names in each the 13 decades from 1880. From there, it was just a matter of