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Can Facts Be False?

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Does a statement have to be true to be a fact? When it comes to the difference between facts and opinions, some may argue that facts are merely claims that can be proven true or false. Most dictionaries, however, assert that in order for an assertion to be a fact, it must be true. This is part of a complete episode.

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  • It’s not often I find myself taking issue with a position taken by either of the show’s hosts, but I’m a little upset that you advised your caller to complain to the teacher that she’s simply wrong to use “fact” to include false statements.

    What you’ve really got hold of here is a further teachable moment: the student can now learn about “formalism”. Asserting that words mean exactly what they’re defined to mean before an exercise begins, no matter what meaning the same word might have in another context, will serve her in good stead in math. This will protect a later teacher from having to knock heads with some kid who insists that “zero is so natural” or “the square root of two is not a real number!”

  • Back when I was in 4th or 5th grade in 1980, I remember being taught the exact same lesson about facts being any verifiable piece of information vs. opinion. What’s remarkable is the fact that I remember that lesson clearly – in my opinion a great lesson that helps kids think. To this day, especially when talking politics with special relatives or friends, I often say “yes, those are your facts, but I can prove them wrong,” and I always think back to that lesson 30 years ago.

  • I also posted this comment as a topic on the Discussion Board. I’d welcome further comments there — https://www.waywordradio.org/discussion/topics/true-facts-and-false-facts/

    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 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.

  • Historically, the word “fact” didn’t mean “true” or “something that was true.” It originally meant something that was “provable to be true.” Which meant it can either be true or false, but as long as there’s a way to prove it, we can consider the statement as a “fact.”

    This distinction is very important when teaching what is a fact versus what is an opinion because an opinion can also be true. Pineapple on pizza is delicious. This is true for me and you can’t prove otherwise.

    You might also refer to Einstein’s Relativity of Simultaneity to prove that not all facts are “true.”

    In the theory, two observers from different POVs will observe the same thing happening but report different observations. A lightning will hit a train and two observers from different frames of reference will record the time at which it hit at different times. Which then is fact and which is opinion? Can both be true and thus both be a fact? Or is only one true and the other is not and is therefore an opinion?

    The obvious solution is to classify both as fact, since truth in this sense, changes depending on one’s frame of reference.

    Opinions however, never changes. It is always untestable and unprovable. The question of which tastes better, coke or pepsi can never be settled because it will always be subjective. And that’s why the teacher was correct in teaching the child that definition of fact. Because that definition is more useful in screening what is fact from opinion.

  • Using wordplay to make is seem like they were not wrong. Kind of like “That depends on what the word “it” means”

    – Todd Charske

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