Sunday, September 9, 2012

Facts and Truth

I've seen a lot of articles about the current Presidential campaign which call for a "FACT CHECK" in blocky all-caps text.  These articles usually take a statement that one of the candidates made, then they say what the real facts are.

Now, see, in my ideal world, this would lead to a debate on what a "fact" is.  Because as I see it, people have the wrong idea of what constitutes a fact.  I somewhat grazed this topic in the educational game, Professor Garfield's Fact or Opinion?.  That game uses the more scientific definition of "fact", which is "a fact is something that can be proven through a series of controlled experiments".  In other words, if something can be proven through experiments, then it's a scientific fact.

I think this is a flawed definition of a fact.  Why?  The definition is focused on whether or not you can prove something.  I think the true definition of fact depends more on whether or not something is true, more than it depends on something's provability.

So in the game, I jokingly pointed out two problems with this definition of "fact":

1. If a fact is merely "something that can be proven", you can easily make up bogus facts.  And in fact, that's what the Presidential candidates are being accused of doing.

2. There are some facts which you can't prove.  For example, "I am a direct descendant of Julius Caesar".  Trying to prove or disprove this fact is probably impossible, but that doesn't make it any less of a fact.

To conclude, I say the definition of "fact" as "something which can be proven" is an imperfect definition, because factuality and provability are not identical.  I'd prefer a definition along the lines of "a fact is something corresponds to reality".  It's a similar, but different definition; I imagine scholars will prefer to keep the current scientific definition, though.

6 comments:

Balin said...

Your definition is the exact definition I stand by.

Anonymous said...

i don't like to be a spelling but you spelled probability wrong and it bothered me throughout reading the article/ blog

Anonymous said...

Actually I myself think, that a fact is something that is universally true, objectively true, not something, that can be proven through experiments! Something, that can be proven/disproven through experiments is an opinion!

Balin said...

Anon from Sept 10: He's saying "provability" as in "something that can be proven," not "probability" as in "likelihood."

Anon from Sept 12: Something that can be proven/disproven through experiments is not an opinion, because several scientific theories can be proven/disproven this way. However, provability is not the only way to determine something is a fact, as actuality and provability are two different things (as Michael stated). A fact is something that corresponds to reality, and things that can be proven through experiments pretty much do correspond to reality, so they are also facts.

shaney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
shaney said...

However, in science, it is incorrect to PROVE anything through experiments, you can support a conclusion.