[Chapter 1 Objectives]

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In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." -- Stephen Jay Gould

Facts Are Well-Confirmed Observations

Suppose that you make some wonderful new observation, and you make your observation known. As more and more people make the same observations you do, you can be more confident that your observation is correct. If your observation is confirmed by many competent people, it can become a fact.

Can a Fact Be Wrong?

YES!! Can "many competent observers" be wrong? Of course! For instance, according to the definition of "fact":

This point troubles people - sometimes a lot. Aren't facts things that we know to be absolutely true? Isn't that the meaning of "fact"? Well, it is the common conception of the word, but let's think about this...

How can we know that something is absolutely true? Nature has no answer book (as far as I know) that we can look in to "check our answers" - like we commonly check our assignments in school.

About all we can do, as rational beings, is make the best observations that we can, and try to ensure that competent observers confirm the observations. A fact is a well-confirmed observation. Even though this is a rather vague definition (How many observers is "many"? How do you judge who is "competent" and who isn't?) to define a fact as "something absolutely and irrefutably true" may be comforting but is useless - even dangerous - in practice.

[Chapter 1 Objectives]
BHS -> Mr. Stanbrough -> Physics -> About Science -> this page
last update August 18, 2006 by JL Stanbrough