What, exactly, are facts?

“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he said.

This quote is from a pollster for the Romney campaign.  I have some serious concerns about the education in this country if someone actually believes that fact checkers can somehow influence what is and isn’t a fact based on their biases.

Which leads me to another question, just what is a fact and how can you know if it is a fact?

From dictionary.com

fact

noun

1.

something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
2.

something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.
3.

a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.
4.

something said to be true or supposed to have happened: The facts given by the witness are highly questionable.

5. Law . Often, facts. an actual or alleged event or circumstance, as distinguished from its legal effect or consequence.

So a fact is something that is know to exist or to have happened.  Philosophically, you can get into questions of how many people have to ‘know’ it to be true and things like that.  The easiest way to handle this would be verifiability.

Can something be verified is a good indication of whether it is a fact or not.  Many people claim that Bigfoot exists.  However, there is very little verifiable evidence that this is the case.  Let’s be real here and say that, to establish the fact that Bigfoot exists, we’re going to have to have a body and it will have to be examined by many, many scientists (including DNA sequencing) and have it verified that the body does indeed belong to a previously unknown hominid.

With a little work and luck, it may be possible to elevate a guess to a fact.  This has happened with a small number of cryptids.

Facts are also things that are mathematically provable.  For example, it is mathematically provable that the sine squared of an angle is equal to one half of one minus the cosine of twice the angle.  That’s a fact.

It is a fact that the Holocaust happened.  We have found sufficient evidence that, including eye-witness testimony, written testimony, and physical evidence at the concentration camps, that the Holocaust is an indisputable fact.

Now, let’s consider something that may or may not be a fact.  Take a rather innocuous statement; “The sun is bright today.”  Is that a fact?

Well… maybe, maybe not.  Technically speaking, the sun is bright every day and night.  When a star is busy converting several hundred million tons of hydrogen into helium by fusion every second, it’s going to be bright.  But that statement generally isn’t about the sun itself.  In general, that statement tends to be more about the local weather and indeed, there may be significant cloud cover.  While the sun is bright, the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth may be very small and not very bright at all.

I personally try to speak with precision about such things, but I often lapse into colloquial speak.  I have to be this exact during my job.

So a fact is something that is verifiable and true.

It’s weird that facts seem to be so malleable in other situations.

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