Factually Accurate about Factoids

Did you know that Stephen Hawking thinks IQ-swagger is for “losers”? Or that your friends have more friends than you do?

What’s the difference between a rhetorical question and an attention-grabber? We often use a phrase like “Did you know” or something similar (such as “Today I learned”). These cliches, while purely rhetorical and lacking any actual inquiry of whether or not you knew a certain fact, implicitly challenging you to be able to assess your own knowledge and understanding of what you already know. And, by presupposing a factoid with the rhetorical “Did you know?”, we are insinuating that there is something unique and counterintuitive about the factoid. A “fun fact” is, of course, fun, but, like all other forms of discourse, it might have unfortunate implications about the way we perceive the world. For example, the fact that Elvis Presley failed music class reminds us of our lightheartedly unexpected ideals that academic performance doesn’t always translate to success and that “life sucks, but we all move on.” But the unexpectedness of the “fun fact” that there are people in Iran who mourn the victims of 9/11 might say something else. While it definitely is helpful for us to realize that the Iranian people (like most other people) are normal human beings, finding something “unexpected” or “surprising” about this factoid might show an underlying preconceived notion.

By posing a challenge to our current knowledge and understanding of the world (while accompanied by a fact that is pleasing), we are so entertained by trivial curiosity. This explains why so many “clickbait” places on the web imply that there are things we “should know” or that “will surprise us!” In fact, in the 1970’s, the word “factoid” was originally coined as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” For this reason, we can look at the information carried by factoids as evidence of underlying assumptions (such as my example with Iranian mourners) among common folk and everyday thinkers, as opposed to rational reason-based heavyweight information of academia and knowledge. Perhaps our obsession with factoids and trivia over past few decades give us comfort that things can still be “simple” in the confusing world of ever-increasing knowledge and uncertainty. And, since this psuedoknowledge is grounded in unexplored depths of mainstream mass media, we end up with misconceptions and misleading ideas such as “in the Peruvian language there are 1,000 words for potato.” In addition, this shows that, in our everyday language, we have a way of speaking that helps us understand how much we truly understand what we know. Who would have thought that such epistemic virtue could be derived from something as simple as a Snapple fact?” I bet you didn’t know that!

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