Facts can delight: A car dashboard is so named because buggies and wagons had a tilted board in that position to block mud kicked up by horses’ hooves.
Facts can warn: Smoking cigarettes will, on average, shorten your life by 10 years.
Facts can inspire: If you quit smoking by age 35, you can claw those lost years back.
A relevant fact is a powerful thing. In that spirit, Friday, Feb. 17, has been dubbed the “Day of Facts” and 270 cultural institutions in the United States and 13 other countries have signed up to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to share important facts.
“The idea is for libraries and museums and archives across the country and around the world to post mission-related content as a way of reassuring the public that, as institutions, we remain trusted sources of knowledge,” said Alex Teller, director of communications at the Newberry Library. “It reflects recognition among a number of different institutions that while our missions haven’t changed, they’ve taken on a new significance in an era of alternative facts.”
Those words sound carefully weighed. And for good reason. In this atmosphere of official vindictiveness, there is a real risk of payback. So I asked directly: Is this a reaction to Donald Trump?
“I would say,” he replied. “I would say . . . that . . . yes. But I also think a lot of institutions are participating in this. They would stress that standing up for the importance of historical truth and standards of truth should not be perceived as taking a political stance. Standing up for truth and certain standards for verifying information shouldn’t be politicized.”
Underline shouldn’t. Though a lot of things that shouldn’t happen are nevertheless happening.
Along with the Newberry, local participants include The Field Museum, The Museum of Science and Industry, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the DePaul Art Museum and DePaul Libraries.
Who came up with this?
“The idea of what would become #DayofFacts was born during the first two weeks of the Trump administration,” its website explains. “Within a week of the inauguration, certain government agencies were receiving instructions from the administration or by agency directors to cease posting on social media, or scrubbing accounts of previously shared content. Given the prominence that Twitter played in the 2016 campaign, and especially given the powerful role that all of us in this sector know that social media plays in our institutions, this was troubling to us.”
“Us” are the two women behind Day of Facts, museum professionals Mara Kurlandsky and Alli Hartley.
“After seeing the tweet by the Death Valley National Monument about the site’s history in the 1940s incarceration of Japanese-Americans, I thought it would be really powerful if Twitter was flooded with facts and historical reminders that could speak to this moment in political history, ” Hartley said.
The National Parks drew Trump’s ire, you recall, by accurately gauging the crowd at his inauguration and then broadcasting the information. Information from climate change data to lists of puppy mills have been stripped from federal websites.
Resistance cropped up immediately. Not just at Death Valley. Someone at Badlands National Park started tweeting global warming facts like: “The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 290 parts per million (ppm). As of December 2016, 404.93 ppm.” leading to the delightful Twitter hashtag #BadassNationalPark.
A common response from Trump supporters is, “You lost.” Meaning, I suppose, that the public should roll over and let the president do whatever he wants to do. That ain’t happening. Seeing heretofore humble sectors of the country stand up in defiance has been incredibly heartening. Park rangers tweeting, immigration lawyers rushing to airports on a Saturday night to give away their services for free. And now, librarians and researchers.
“This is not happening in a vacuum,” Teller said. “A lot of us are using Day of Facts to signal to the public: we are not institutions frozen in time. We are aware of what’s going on, and how it can impact our patrons. The impact of the values we stand for.”
“At a time when more and more attention is being paid to so-called ‘alternative facts,’ to information described with a political or ideological agenda, it’s important for the museum to say, ‘There are facts out there and we are one of the sources,'” said Ken Angielczyk, associate curator of fossil mammals at the Field Museum. The museum created a video for the day.
“It’s important to show that we, as scientists, stand in solidarity with other scientists, with government scientists, at the EPA or NOAA, some of whom are facing worrisome developments, censorship of their research.”
Are they worried about official retribution? They could find their National Science Foundation grants cut.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said Angielczyk. “If something like that happens, defunding of sources we rely upon, it will have impact beyond the Field Museum. The core of our mission is scientific inquiry. It’s something important. We are interested in learning facts about the natural world and educating people. If we make a stand for science, at least personally, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. The importance of it outweighs the risk to the museum as a whole. The board of trustees has decided it is part of our mission. This is what we do. It’s important for us to stand up for that, regardless of the consequences.”Tweets by @neilsteinberg