There is a four letter word floating around that people throw around without quite knowing what it means. It’s a dirty, inconvenient little word that blows the rosiest of assumptions out of the water on a fairly regular basis. What word am I talking about? Why, I’m talking about the word “fact”. Now, you may remember that I defined the word “fact” in the first entry in the Word Abuse series as something that has been observed and is generally held to be true. If it’s the case that I already took the effort to define it, you might be asking, why bother giving fact its own post? Well, in light of the fact that a member of the Romney campaign said that their campaign wouldn’t be dictated by fact-checkers, and since both sides seem to have their own set of facts, I think it’s important to figure out what exactly the word “fact” means and what it doesn’t.
To that end, I’m going to define the word opposite of fact and give some concrete examples. An assertion is something stated without evidence, sometimes in the face of evidence, while facts are based on evidence of observation, experimentation, and/or documentation (depending on your field). By way of example, it is a fact that dinosaurs existed. We have bones, eggs, and even fecal samples. I can say with all the confidence in the world, based on the evidence, that dinosaurs existed. Now, an assertion would be to say that all dinosaurs were fuzzy, purple, and spent their days singing and dancing with children. Outside of PBS, that just doesn’t happen. Sorry. The evidence just is not there. Unless of course a paleontologist finds the skeleton of a Barneysaurus under a playground. Then I’d change my view as the facts would have changed.
That’s one big difference between facts and assertions. Facts change. A new discovery can blow a set of “facts” people thought were set in stone completely out of the water. Once, it was a “fact” that mouse babies spontaneously arose from bundles of rags, and that maggots arose from meat. So-called “spontaneous generation” was overturned as a viable hypothesis when people realized that cells were the basic unit of life, and that cells only arose from other cells. Once Cell Theory was discovered, new facts replaced the old ones. Or, to state it more accurately, we discovered the actual facts, rather than believing an assertion based on limited knowledge.
So why is this important? First, let me paraphrase a quotation from Finding Nemo: “Facts are friends, NOT foes.” Discovering facts helps us to see the world as it is, not merely as we think it is or think it should be. Facts are like candles–one might not throw a lot of light, but if you get a ton of them together they can drive back the dark. A good, factual knowledge base can help us, both as individuals and as a larger society, make the best possible decisions. Facts are not to be feared, but embraced. If your beliefs run counter to the facts, it’s time to sit down and reevaluate those beliefs. To do anything else is to do yourself a disservice.