I was listening to a BBC report on “The March for Science.” And I was wondering what message they were trying to convey. It apparently had a tie in with “earth day” and global warming. But anyway one of the people interviewed by the BBC said that to them an important message was that a “fact” is something that is verifiable and testable. Now I have heard this definition by quite a few others who might say it is verifiable by observation etc. So I thought I would address the problems with that definition in this blog.
Now this may be the way scientists view what a “fact” is but I would say that is a change from what it traditionally means. Moreover, I think adopting that definition in a more general sense means all facts are scientific facts. And that is problematic. I would point out that I have nothing against science and indeed I always had a higher aptitude for science than any other subject. But I admit being somewhat annoyed by scientists who seem to know nothing other than science telling the world how everything should be. Science is not the answer to every question.
Now before we go into analyzing her definition. (I will call it the “scientific definition” for simplicity sake). I would like to give some idea as to a traditional and legal definition of a fact. So for just a dictionary definition we can see this:
The Blacks Law definition offers this:
“A thing done; an action performed or an incident transpiring; and event or circumstance; an actual occurrence; an actual happening in time or space or an event or mental or physical; that which has taken pace…. A fact is either a state of things, that is, an existence, or a motion , that is, an event. The quality of being actual; actual existence or occurrence….” (citations omitted)
So you can see that the legal definition and the traditional definition have a focus on what actually happened or what actually is the case. It is not dependent on whether this can be proven or verified or not. So even if everyone agrees the evidence verifies that Martin Luther said “here I stand, I can do no other” in 1521. If he did not actually say that then it is not a fact. In other words facts are not dependent on what we can verify.
It was a fact that Jupiter had moons in 1510 just like it was a fact that Jupiter had moons in 1610 after Galileo saw them with his telescope. If someone in 1510 said it is not a fact that Jupiter has moons, then I would say he got his facts wrong. Because the moons were actually existing, they in fact existed.
To make facts dependent on verification actually makes them subjective. This is because often what will be a proof (or verification) to one person will not be a proof or verification to another. What is a proof will depend on what premises each of us accepts. (If you not sure on this check out my earlier blog here: https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/11/extra-extra-read-all-about-it-gods-existence-proven/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true) But I think we all want facts to be objective. So its unclear that she sees how badly she and others are botching the idea of a fact.
But I would point out another issue. Not because I have a strong view on it, but just because I think it’s interesting. Typically, in the law, a fact is something that is in the present or in the past. Future events are not facts. Some scientists want say certain theories are “facts” – like lets say gravity is a fact. That might mean different things. That gravity caused apples to fall in the past is a fact. That gravity is causing my book to remain on my desk is a fact. But that gravity will cause my book to stay on my desk tomorrow – is not a fact. It would seem that is not a fact under any definition. And in my opinion that is how it should be. We can say with lots of certainty that certain things will happen in the future. But they are not facts.
The bottom line with all of this is that certain scientists want people to place more importance on scientific views. So what they co-opt language so they and only they can have “facts” on their side. Changing what words mean to support your agenda almost always leads to more heat than light. I like science and appreciate its method, but there is no need to butcher what words mean on its altar.