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Perspective: Of Cannibals And Kings


Suppose I arrive late at a meeting and say, “Sorry to be late. I just flew  from the planet Neptune, and boy, are my arms tired.” And you, in response, say, “I thought you were planning to spend the night on Jupiter.” We’d both be joking of course. But suppose we weren’t joking. Then we would be sent to a psychiatrist. But there’s another explanation: Perhaps we come from a culture in which there’s a common belief that people can fly all the way to Neptune and back.

We all know that isn’t possible. But if you asked me precisely why, I couldn’t give you a detailed scientific explanation. That’s because non-belief in flying to Neptune is not a scientific fact but a social fact. It’s one of the many certainties on which our social cohesion is built. We need another excuse for being late for a meeting.

Most facts are social facts. We just know them. You can’t be a functioning member of a particular society if you don’t know them.

In the 1500s the French court interviewed a group of cannibals from South America. When the gathered French intellectuals asked the so-called cannibals if there was anything about French society that struck THEM as odd, they said, “Yes. Why do you let a child boss you around?” It seems that the king of France at the time was nine years old. Had he just flown back from Neptune, too?

This is Tom McBride, and that’s my Perspective.

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