I recently read The Salmon of Doubt, published posthumously from the hard drives of one Douglas Noel Adams. It is the last addition to the brilliant canon of a brilliant man. I for one did not truly realize the breadth of his intelligence until I read some of the more candid bits that are contained in this final volume. There is a quote buried somewhere in the book, amid an article regarding, among other things, palmtop computers, typewriter keyboards, and Branwell Brontë. The quote is:
“My favourite piece of information is that Branwell Brontë, brother of Emily and Charlotte, died standing up leaning against a mantle piece, in order to prove it could be done.
This is not quite true, in fact. My absolute favourite piece of information is the fact that young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees.
However, this is not relevant to what is currently on my mind because it concerns sloths, whereas the Branwell Brontë piece of information concerns writers and feeling like death and doing things to prove they can be done, all of which are pertinent to my current situation to a degree that is, frankly, spooky.”
Now, you might read this and think to youself, ‘No way! How did I not know that bit about sloths!’, and then go on happily with your day. Or, like I did, you might think to youself, ‘No way! How did I not know that bit about sloths!’, and drive your little web browser over to Google or Yahoo! or some such search place (Just not Bing, for goodness’ sake not Bing), search the bit about sloths, and find that it’s totally bogus. There is no scientific evidence for it.
Of course, this piece of information made it onto the internet, and has been passed around and around by those who either a) believe it, or b) appreciate it. (Notice there is no c) believe it and appreciate it) Which brings up an interesting point, regarding bits of information. People around the internet seem to be all in a tizzy because little sloths don’t actually mistake their arms for trees. Which, I mean, even for a sloth, is daft. Arms and trees are rather different. One is furry and hurts when you pinch it, and the other doesn’t drop you 90 feet onto the ground when you grab at it. In hindsight, having believed this bit of information for a couple seconds, I feel a little silly. Of course baby sloths don’t actually do this. Sloths live in the trees. If they constantly grabbed their arms and fell out of them they wouldn’t have survived this long.
At this point, I was beginning to feel a bit sad. I mean how could Douglas Adams, the brilliant man that he was, have gotten this wrong? (The answer is actually quite simple, but we’ll get to that later.) Then I realized, that it didn’t actually matter. Read the quote again. (The whole thing, if you like, or if you are an efficient sort of person, just the middle part.) Never does Mr. Adams actaully assert that this is a fact. All he says is that it is his favorite piece of information. And here we get to an intersting point about information.
You see, to be information, there is no actual requirement that it be true. This is something that I think many people forget, which is interesting, because there is certainly more information available to us now than there has ever been. We live our lives in a constant state of information overload. It’s everywhere. Phones, emails, every where all over your laptop, on the television, on the radio. All that information about you on the internet that is false, is still information about you on the internet. With information being literally everywhere, it’s important to keep the possibility that the information is false in mind. Now, there are obviously places where it is assumed that information is true. When you’re reading BBC news bulletins. Or Aljezeera. Even NPR. The job of these organizations is to provide you with things that are factually true. When you’re reading other sites on the internet, such as Fox News, or an internet blog, a little more critical thinking is requried.
All of this being said, I do not know if Douglas Adams knew this information to be false when he wrote it. There are lots of pieces of information that are out there. For instance, Maine is the only state whose name is just one syllable. Pigs are the only other animal besides humans that can get sunburnt. It is illegal to hunt camels in the state of Arizona. The Bible is the most shoplifted book in the United States. Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously. If you spell out numbers, you have to get to one thousand (1000) before you use the letter ‘a’. (For more like this, you can visit this website, or use your favorite search engine to find random pieces of information.) Now, are all of those pieces of information true? I have no idea. (Except the letter ‘a’ one, I know that one is actaully true.) But they are, in fact, pieces of information. Some of them, like the camel hunting ban in Arizona, are on my top 20 list. Some of them, like the one about Canada accidentally putting an American flag over their parlament building on their two dollar bill, are false, yet I still like them. Others, like the one about Canada putting the American side of the Sault St. Marie locks on the four dollar bill in 1900 instead of the Canadian side, by accident, are true (google it, but google it wisely), and I like them anyway.
The thing about sloths is: regardless of the fact that the bit about sloths isn’t true, just try and get the image of a baby sloth mistakenly grabbing its own arm and falling out of a tree out of your head. You can’t do it. I’ve tried. It’s just hilarious. The little guy is just sitting there and then fwoomp! It’s brilliant. And you probably smiled thinking about it. Douglas Adams was a satirist, a script writer, a novelist, and brilliant by all accounts. This little bit about sloths is one of my favorite pieces of information as well. Because it is a great piece of information, and also, (this is the bit I said we’d get to later) it means that Douglas Adams wasn’t always right. Which, I think, is one of my favorite things about him.