There’s a lot of talk about ‘facts’.
People claim that they have the ‘true facts’, or about something being a ‘scientific fact’ and so on.
But what is ‘fact’ or ‘a fact’? Is there indeed such a thing?
The definition of the word includes a ‘get out’ clause in that a ‘fact’ is something that is ‘known’ or believed to be ‘true’. There is a secondary definition that it has been ‘proved’ to be true.
There is a lot here to consider and the first thing that stands out is the word ‘true’ because the definition of true is ‘in accordance with fact’ so we have a circular definition which means very little.
The second aspect of a fact is that it is something which is backed up by belief which again has no material basis for reality.
It was once believed to be true that the Earth was flat. That was a known fact.
Until someone proved otherwise.
It is know believed to be true that the Earth is a sphere because that’s the conclusion observable evidence leads us to.
What is a known true fact today may not be so tomorrow.
It was once believed that the smallest possible particle was an atom which could not be subdivided, observations have shown otherwise and are leading now to the observation that there are no such things as particles at all, everything is energy.
So what about this ‘science’ thing?
Science is held up by many people as the arbiter of fact. “It’s a scientific fact (and you can’t argue with that)”
Well, as a scientist I know only too well that you can.
Science is simply a method for discovery. Discovery of how things ‘work’, how to ‘do’ something, or ‘what is ‘going on’.
It works like this: you make a guess (a hypothesis) and then conduct experiments and observations to see if that guess was ‘right’, then you make another guess and so on until you come up with a ‘theory’ about whatever you are investigating.
You then get other scientists to test that theory, to try and break or disprove it. If the theory ‘holds up’ it becomes a ‘Law’ or a ‘Fact’.
It’s not necessarily ‘true’ – it is only correct in the exact context and environment in which the experiments were done, and the observations made. Outside those constraints it may not hold up or it may be completely irrelevant.
Scientists build ‘models’ to test their theories as it is rare that they are able to test them in ‘real life’. Modelling extends to testing treatments of various types on animals before they are tried out on humans – so we can never be 100% certain that anything that science comes up with will either ‘work’ or be ‘true.
The same process takes place in economics. Economists, who use very similar methods to scientists, make models and predict courses of action. Different ‘schools’ of economics use different models for the same thing and come up with different ‘answers’
The same thing happens with every ‘discipline’ that uses academic or even real-life models to make predictions.
The thing is that these predictions are peddled as ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ which they are not.
The world of art is not immune from this either. Art itself is a medium of interpretation. People use writing, painting and especially photography to give an impression of the world as they see it, of how they see what is going on and how things work.
The method is different from the ‘technicians’ and more drawn from the subconscious than the logical mind but it still creates their view of the ‘facts’ of life.
Perhaps this gives us a clue to what ‘fact’ really is and perhaps artists are the closest observers of ‘fact’.
You see, the artist uses his or her beliefs and understandings of the world around them to create their form of art; to show the facts as they see them – just as I am doing in this writing.
As the definition states – facts are what people believe to be true. There is no real definitive truth.
Some may argue against that and cite examples, as in Wikipedia, that it is a fact that the Sun is a star – well, it’s only a ‘star’ because we call it a star, some people used to call it a god, which if course they believed as a fact.
Now, granted, there are some empirical facts that are ‘true’ like, again from Wikipedia, Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. Yes, but that’s merely a piece of information that has very little bearing on anything. A ‘useless fact’ perhaps?
You and I have to think carefully about whatever is presented to us as a ‘fact’ or ‘true’, first the environment or context in which it is being presented and second the ‘credentials’ of the presenter.
I have a bunch of letters after my name but they don’t really mean a lot, maybe I know how to do a few things, maybe I was invited to join an organisation, but those letters and Fellowships and Degrees are no indicator that I have a monopoly or even a claim on any sort of ‘fact’ or ‘truth’.
Most of the so-called ‘facts’ and ‘statistics’ being banded about are in support of someone’s agenda. They are the facts or truths that support their beliefs – or indeed, are the facts and truths that arise from those beliefs or that agenda.
Just like in a Court case, different sides ‘select’ the ‘facts’ that ‘fit’ their case, that support their beliefs, their truth.
In the end you and I have to go back to our beliefs and identify the evidence that supports them whether that evidence be experimental (what you have discovered by experiment) or empirical (what you have observed).
As I have said before, the ‘truth’ is not ‘out there’, it’s inside.
Reality is relative and facts and truth are illusions you and I create for ourselves. Our facts, those we choose to believe, arise from our ‘realities’ and our agendas.