AN Italian Franciscan monk named Luca Pacioli wrote a book on mathematics in the late fifteenth century. This textbook, Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita, was one of the earliest books published after the advent of the printing press. While focusing on algebra and other aspects of math, there also was a significant section on accounting.
Pacioli chronicled double-entry bookkeeping—entering each entry twice, both as a debit and a credit, in order to reduce errors—which was the first time this method had been codified in print. This error-checking methodology, which was being used by Italian merchants, finally could be spread far and wide.
Mary Poovey, an English professor at New York University and the author of the monograph History of the Modern Fact, has argued that the modern conception of the fact, with its notion of objective reality that often goes hand in hand with a certain quantifiable quality, was first seen during the Middle Ages. Specifically, Poovey identified the “invention” of the fact with the advent of double-entry bookkeeping. Only with the introduction of this methodology in the fifteenth century or so, Poovey argued, did humans become accustomed to thinking in terms of bits of information in quite this way.
Of course, this doesn’t quite ring true. As humans we have been chronicling pieces of knowledge for millennia, if sometimes with a bit less objective mathematical truth than that found in a ledger.
The world was ready for new types of knowledge by the late Middle Ages. As the Middle Ages and its accounting systems gave way to the Renaissance, which in turn laid the foundations for the Scientific Revolution, facts were given a new sort of prominence.
As the scientific method was being codified, and our surroundings were subjected to experimental rigor the likes of which the world had never seen, facts were generated and overturned at an ever-increasing pace. Finally, the testable scientific fact had arrived. This is the critical insight of the Scientific Revolution: Science requires an idea to be refutable. It is not good enough for a concept to seem compelling; it must have the potential for a new fact to come along and render it false. As we have seen over and over, this not only can happen, but often is the rule rather than the exception. Kathryn Schulz, in Being Wrong, notes:
This is the pivotal insight of the Scientific Revolution: that the advancement of knowledge depends on current theories collapsing in the face of new insights and discoveries. In this model of progress, errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.
Ever since the end of the Middle Ages and the Scientific Revolution—in addition to the Industrial Revolution, which saw ever-changing technological facts—we have lived in this new and exciting realm of knowledge.