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What are facts?

Just like we might generally know what honesty is, we might know what facts are. Here are some easy ones.

If I throw an apple up into the air above me, it will come down.

The sun is going to rise tomorrow (even if I cannot see it with my eyes).

If I use some salt water with two different metals connected by a wire, I can make a battery.

Now, the first two facts are pretty easy to understand. The last one is a bit more tricky, especially if you didn’t know that fact. While I don’t want to get into the philosophical rabbit hole of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) right now, it is important to see that facts are very different from what we call opinions.

Interestingly, if you can easily distinguish facts from opinions, you’re doing better than a lot of other people. Even if you are generally good at it overall, it can be challenging to immediately distinguish opinions over facts because of something that harms our ability to understand: cognitive biases.

Facts can be incredibly important to our ability to exist. They’ve helped us understand the world around us and to better control it so that we are not subject to its whims. Our evolved pattern-finding skills helped with this. We developed math and science to help. We still find patterns, and we’re so good at it that we detect patterns which do not exist. We often confuse beliefs and opinions for facts when they have nothing to do with logic or reality. Such mistakes might not matter if we do it just a little bit here or there, but when we have a lot of little errors caused by our opinions lacking fact, they can add up to be much worse. They can combine to help us make bad decisions. They can be so bad that we end up making horrible decisions that result in death and destruction. Thus, it is important to know what a fact is and that they are different from opinions.

But I haven’t answered the question: what is a fact?

Image by Gerd Altmann

Definition of Fact

Google gives the definition “a thing that is known or proved to be true.”

Oof, another empty-pizza-box definition? We now need to know what is "true" to see what might be known or proved to be true. In other words, we might have to ask the question “what is truth?" So much for avoiding the fun rabbit hole of the philosophy of information and understandingwhat philosophers from the days of Plato and Aristotle worked to understand. We’ll go down a different route: we’ll take a definition of what a fact is and go with it. Here is our take: a fact is “a thing that can be proven with high certainty by generally multiple independent observers in often more than one way.” Most importantly, in this definition a fact is something that can be proven. If we really want to understand what this means, we should probably know what ‘proving’ means. We aren’t deeply descending into the rabbit hole, but I bet you can see why it has taken thousands of years of deep thought to begin to understand what is closer to truth.

Proving something generally means establishing a connection between cause and effect. This connection can be seen as an explanation or an understanding that if you have a certain starting point, you’re going to end up with a certain ending point (or possibly ending points).

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