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True facts and false facts
Grant and Martha miss a teaching moment
Topic Rating: +1 (3 votes) 
2012/10/10
7:34am
AnMa
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This is in reference to a call featured in the Sept. 29 episode, "Dog and Pony Show" -- http://www.waywordradio.org/discussion/topics/dog-and-pony-show/

Fact or Opinion?

I believe that Grant and Martha completely missed the boat on the "fact" question. In the language of reason, logic, rhetoric, religion and, most significantly, law and science, the teacher was absolutely correct about what "fact" means. It means a statement that can be proven to be true or false. It is contrasted with things like opinions or beliefs. That means that there are such things as true facts and false facts.

For example, in American defamation law, a person might have a claim for defamation if he or she can show that the defendant has intentionally and publicly made a false defamatory statement of fact. For the plaintiff in such a case to prove this kind of claim, he or she must show elements like this (the specific details might vary depending on the jurisdiction, but they generally follow this pattern):

1. The defendant made a statement of fact (that is, not a statement of opinion or belief).
2. The statement was false.
3. The defendant had the intent to make such a statement.
4. The statement was published (that is, made public).
5. The statement of fact, if believed by members of the public, would tend to harm the plaintiff's good name or reputation.

Notice that the questions of whether the statement was a statement of fact and whether the statement was false are two separate questions. You can't be liable for defamation for stating an opinion, only for making a false statement of fact. That's not a contradiction of terms. It just reflects a meaning of the word "fact" that is relevant to a particular context. And that context is also the operating context when a teacher is educating kids on distinguishing between statements of fact and statements of opinion.

It is particularly relevant that the child in this case was reading a breakfast cereal box, because the distinction between statements of fact and other kinds of statements are relevant to things like advertising, marketing, sales, and product promotion. A lot of advertising is directed at children, especially for things like breakfast cereal, and I believe that the teacher was establishing the grounds for an important lesson about claims made by the sellers of products.

By going through the statements on a box of cereal, and identifying which ones were claims of fact (things that are capable of being proven true or false) and other kinds of statements (say, opinion or puffery) this child was engaging in a very sophisticated act of rational analysis.

A prominent example of this important meaning of the word "fact" is reflected in the works of the late Christopher Hitchens, the political polemicist and crusading atheist. He is noted for asserting that any statement of belief in a supernatural power or divine creator is a "statement of fact" that must be proven with evidence, and if evidence is not forthcoming, it must be considered to have been a false statement of fact. This is not a fringe or insignificant meaning of the phrase "statement of fact" or of the word "fact." It is very important in our society today to understand this kind of assertion and its significance.

Now, it is also important for a child to know the more popular and less specialized meaning of "fact," that is, "a true fact," but I think Grant and Martha did a disservice by telling the caller that the teacher had done something wrong in teaching the child this very important definition.

2012/10/10
9:56am
Heimhenge
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I'd like to expand on the scientific use of the word "fact" as it's not quite the same as the legal use you cite.

In science, an hypothesis is something that can be shown as true or false. And even then, "truth" is usually a long time coming. While an hypothesis can be immediately falsified by a single counter-example, whether or not it's a truth is (almost) always open to question. Only after a long run of corroborating evidence from varied sources does the assertion begin to approach what science considers to be "truth," at which point the term "law" or "theory" starts being used to describe it. But it's the nature of science to admit that future discoveries could falsify what has been deemed a "law" or "theory."

For example, Newton's "laws" of motion were thought to be inviolable for over two centuries, and were based on definitions that most felt made them as rock-solid as Euclid's laws of plane geometry. Yet in the early part of the 20th century, Einstein showed that Newton's laws were a special case of a more general system of equations (now called relativity theory). But we still use the term "law" to describe Newton's ideas, since it's understood they apply perfectly well under most conditions.

There are, of course, scientific "facts," and this is why I included the parenthetical "almost" in my first paragraph. At one point in history, the idea that the Earth was round was an hypothesis (though they weren't doing much real "science" back then). These days, that statement has become a fact. Facts can also be the result of direct measurement or observation, as in "The average distance from the Earth to the Moon is 247,000 miles."

Scientists can still be a bit sloppy with their use of terms like "law" and "theory." In informal discussion, you'll often hear things like "I have a theory that …" when they really mean "I have an hypothesis that …" But in research publications and textbooks, they're more careful about their use. 

2012/10/10
11:51am
Glenn
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I agree with AnMa that the teacher was using and teaching a specialized use of the word "fact." Even the caller allowed that. But it would disturb me if that teacher didn't ackowledge that this use is specialized to the students, and even moreso to the parents.

2012/10/10
12:34pm
AnMa
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I blame the misunderstanding on the caller. It seemed to me he got all hot and bothered about this specialized usage and confronted the teacher, which, as might be expected, resulted in a less-than-satisfactory explanation.

What the caller should have done, if anything needed to be done, was simply tell his daughter that when she hears people saying "fact" in ordinary conversation, they might mean something different, specifically, "true fact." It's also an opportunity to introduce the idea that words can have different meanings in different contexts.

And this is what I think Grant and Martha should have told the caller. But instead they said, "You're right and the teacher was wrong." And I think that was the wrong message.

2012/10/10
2:03pm
Grant Barrett
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AnMa, thank you for your impassioned remarks. However, the legal aspect does not come into it at all. That meaning — if it exists in law as you say it does — simply does not pertain to a grade school classroom.

2012/10/10
2:07pm
Robert
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AnMa said

1. The defendant made a statement of fact (that is, not a statement of opinion or belief).
2. The statement was false.
  … a false statement of fact. That's not a contradiction of terms.

AnMa, please be assured of my good faith and good humor and being constructive of spirit in this:

In order to make the argument for, excuse it so roughly put but it looks like your point, 'fact can be true fact or false fact,'  the number 2 above should read:

       2. The fact was false.

Totally different !  The original statement above doesn't say anything about the nature or meaning of the word 'fact.'

In the same vein, of course there is no contradiction of terms whatsoever in these phrases:
     'a false statement of fact' 
     'a false statement of the truth'
Why not? Because 'false' applies to 'statement,' not 'fact' or 'truth.'

If not moot, the whole legal enunciation above looks like it argues for the strict sense of 'fact': after all the only way to defame someone is to use the word 'fact' in the strict sense of 'truth,'  because what in the world is the point otherwise?

 

2012/10/10
2:21pm
AnMa
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I thank you for your responses, Grant.

However, the legal aspect does not come into it at all. That meaning — if it exists in law as you say it does — simply does not pertain to a grade school classroom.

And I assert that in a lesson in which students are being taught the difference between "fact" and "opinion," it is absolutely relevant to a grade school class. In fact, it's the same lesson that I was taught in grade school.

The fact/opinion dichotomy is a common subject of discussion in colloquial English. If it were the case that facts could not be false, there couldn't exist a dichotomy. It would have to be a … um … trichotomy: fact/falsehood/opinion. But that's not how we parse the possibilities. There is only one counterpart to an opinion, and it is "fact."

So, I agree that fact by itself commonly implies "true fact." But when the focus of a grade school lesson or any other conversation is on the distinction between facts and opinions, then it must be possible for a fact to be false.

Because ‘false’ applies to ‘statement,’ not ‘fact’ or ‘truth.’

If all facts must be true, then any statement of fact must also be true. Otherwise a "false statement of fact" could not exist; it would have to be a "statement of non-fact."

If "fact" can only mean "a true thing," then a "statement of fact" can only mean "a statement of a true thing." And then "a false statement of fact" would mean "a false statement if a true thing," which is meaningless.

Thus, if "false statement of fact" has any meaning, then a fact can be false.

2012/10/10
10:05pm
Robert
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AnMa said
If all facts must be true, then any statement of fact must also be true.

A statement of fact can be that Relativity works or it doesn't, and can be true or false.
A statement of fact can be that Anne Hathaway is beautiful or she's not, and can be true or false.
A statement of fact can be that the national debt is too large, and can be true or false.
A statement of fact can be true or false depending on what the truth is.

The truth determines the quality true/false of the statement of fact.

The statement of fact, be it capable of being true, false, red, blue, male, transvestite all it wants, and in spite of having the word 'fact' right in it, does not inform howsoever the current dispute about the meaning of 'fact,' hence sorry the fallacy of the legal point above, and of belaboring 'statement of fact' to death.

2012/10/15
10:27am
RobertB
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This blows everything away: fact is firmer than truth. Being just one opinion, talking about something else, it should not settle anything at all for the current discussion, rather just a thing so apt it's delicious like corn chip in salsa. Hope y'all enjoy:

Howard Kurtz contends that in the two Americas, each side has its own set of facts. But facts do not change. Truth, on the other hand, is fact filtered through ideology. Each side has its own truth, sometimes based on facts, sometimes based partially on facts, sometimes absolutely without facts. We as citizens need to dig for the actual facts, not just accept what we are told. There's a huge difference.

Susan Walker, Spokane, Wash., Letters, Newsweek Oct 22, 2012

2013/06/26
2:11am
Robert
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The English are always degrading truths into facts. When a truth becomes a fact it loses all its intellectual value.

 
(That nice piece of Oscar Wilde's witticism is best for your entertainment only, otherwise that thing can start a debate that runs to the end of time.)
2013/09/07
3:02am
Robert
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In the book 'Good Prose'  coauthor Richard Todd offers many wise observations from his decades as Atlantic editor- this one when Todd summarizes his thoughts on how nonfiction writers are forced to choose from facts to build a semblance of the ever elusive truth:
 
Facts and truth: not only are they not synonymous, but they often have a very tangential relationship. Although the truth must always be found in facts, some facts, sometimes, obscure the truth.
 
(Note plural facts and singular truth.)
 
Still, this debaters' mock protestation won't stop being such, nor stop drawing a good laugh:  'Stop trying to cloud the issue with facts!'
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