Richard A. O'Keefe
18 June 2006
Recently I saw a magazine which asked the question on its front cover: "Are Albinos Really Evil?" That anyone should find such a question worth posing is due to the continuing great popularity of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The story is plainly and admittedly fiction, but many people find the background persuasive.
There are experts and "experts" of all sorts who can tell us authoritatively, well, whatever they want to tell us. How can an ordinary person like you or me figure out whether to take Brown's word for things like the Catholic Church's responsibility for the absence of women Rabbis (chapter 28) or whether to give it exactly as much belief as Harry Potter?
One good way is to find a fact you can check for yourself and check it. For example, in chapter 20, Langdon tells us "if you divide the number of female bees by the number of male bees in any beehive in the world, you always get the same number [1.618]." Is that true? Consider: a typical beehive will have one fertile female bee (the queen), a few thousand male bees (the drones), and twenty to eighty thousand sterile female worker bees. So instead of the male:female ratio being 1:1.618, it's either 1:10 or more if you count workers or 2000:1 or more the other way if you don't. It normally takes an entire government department to get numbers this badly wrong!
Where did Brown get this funny idea about bees, anyway? You will find that ratio amongst the ancestors of a male bee. There is a big difference betweeen (the ancestors of a single bee) and (the bees now living in a hive). If something that simple is wrong, why should we think anything else in the book is right?
Mind you, I had to look that up. Is there anything else you or I could check for ourselves without leaving our bedroom? Yes, and Langdon tells us to do it, in the same chapter. "Next time you're in the shower, take a tape measure. ... Measure the distance from the tip of your head to the floor. Then divide that by the distance from your belly button to the floor. ... you get ... [1.618]."
Hands up all the people who read that and said "Wow!" Now hands up all the people who actually got a tape measure and did it. For me, the ratio was 1.95, which is quite far from 1.618, and I'm pretty normal looking. A ratio higher than 1.618 is actually very common. Now, if we can't trust a "fact" that's that easy to check, what are the odds that we can trust any other "fact" in the book?
Carelessness about facts is no sin in a work of fiction. The whole thing is made up; who cares if the bees and belly buttons are fictional as well? But they do warn us not to mistake any part of fiction for fact.