What is a Fact?

And a new discussion ensued at the Sunday Morning Domino Game during which several people claimed there is no fact (as I define it) or the “facts” keep changing, as according to their definition of a fact. So I got all het up and rushed home to change this section of the book in production (Bare Bones Ecology part one Energy). And insert it between the normal Sunday and Thursday Posts. Probably I’ll pop in another tomorrow as this led also to the change of the following section of the book.

What is a Fact?

Probably there is no good definition of a “fact,” and yet no other word suits. I will therefore refer to “measurable facts” for realities that can be measured and do not change. Measurable facts are, for example, the temperature of pure water at sea level when it freezes. Good science is based in measurable facts. For this reason, good science is predictive. We can trust that it is true within the parameters of the measurement. Airplanes fly because the technology (engineering) of airplanes used the measurable facts, for example gravity and the way air flows across the wings, that relate to flight. If facts actually keep changing, as I have been told, then airplanes would fly sometimes and not other times. Oh, well, of course they do but the times when they don’t fly, it’s not because the measurable facts changed. Maybe some emotion changed in a pilot. Emotions are realities, but they are not measurable facts.

People can use words to mean anything they choose, and the corporate media are happy to do this. The result — the common belief that facts “change all the time” is very damaging to our ability to survive in an environment that then seems like it is changing all the time. The statement is so common, and the example given seems always to be that the “earth was flat and now it is round.” The fact is — no matter what word we choose to use — facts do not change. Amusing, isn’t it, that the example given perfectly defines this. The fact is the earth is more or less round, not flat, and it never did change because facts do not change. It is human perceptions that change, and human perceptions do not control the shape of the earth. Which is a fact. Similarly, the facts that maintain the life of the ecosystem are not “changing all the time,” nor will they change to suit human perceptions. That’s why real science is so important to us. It is the closest thing we have to understanding real facts about the things we can not control.

Measurable facts are a critical component of the scientific method — therefore of science. It is important, even in everyday life, to understand the difference between the disciplines that rely on measurable facts — science, technology, engineering — and disciplines that use the methods of inquiry and persuasion that are part of the liberal arts, such as philosophy, religion and art including literature. Any person who wants to contribute to our resolution of social and biological problems will naturally want to be reasonably fluent in the problem-solving tools both of the liberal arts and of science, because they are different tools to study different “windows on reality”.

It is even more important that we not confuse a measurable fact with an opinion, lest we fool ourselves into believing things that are not true. For example, the advertising world abounds with claims that various commodities have been “scientifically tested.” Mostly, these claims are hogwash. Advertising. On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to evaluating measurable data, as the scientist tries to do in his professional life, we would be denied the pleasure and wonder of Shakespeare, Van Gogh, much of our knowledge of history and religion, and almost everything that we watch on television.