A few years ago, I found myself walking through my parents’ house, my father chasing after me, screaming “facts” at the top of his voice. His “facts” were a bunch of Fox News sound bites. “Obama is a socialist! That’s a fact!” “Hillary is a crook! That’s a fact!” “Americans are overtaxed! That’s a fact!” And on, and on. I walked away when I realized that my father didn’t know what a fact is. I mean that, literally. He doesn’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion; and he doesn’t know that he didn’t scream a single fact at me. Everything that he screamed was an opinion.
Since then, I’ve observed that a great many people don’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” But if you don’t know the difference between opinions and facts, then that distinction is meaningless.
So, let me give you the facts about facts.
The basis of all facts is observation. What you see, you can believe. Subject to one major restriction.
Other people have to observe the same thing and agree with you. If you see an invisible unicorn and nobody else can see it, then the invisible unicorn is not a fact. It is a hallucination, a fantasy, or a mistake. It doesn’t matter how loud the voices in your head, they’re not facts.
The result of logical inference from observations, also produces a fact. If you observe that unsupported objects that are heavier than air fall to the earth, and that a new object is heavier than air, then you can combine those two facts to know that the new object will fall to earth. If you know that an airplane in flight does not fall to earth, then you can infer that it is being supported in some way. Logic applied to facts beget new facts.
There are two kinds of logic: deductive and inductive.
Deductive logic takes that form that if A is a fact and B is a fact and A plus B implies C, then C is also a fact. Deductive logic is iron-clad. C is not a fact only if A is wrong, or B is wrong, or the implication is mistaken.
Inductive logic is not quite as certain. It takes the form that if some fact is observed often enough, then it will always be a fact. Gravity is an example of inductive logic. Every time we’ve looked, gravity has been true – unsupported objects that are heavier than air fall to earth – and we’ve looked at that under all kinds of circumstances, so we assume that it will always be true.
Most of our facts come from inductive logic. We’ve observed something often enough, and we all agree on the observation, than we have to assume that it will always be true. Until it’s not. If we observe something that contradicts previous observations, then we can no longer call our observations a fact. At that point, we have to revise our facts.
That’s the heart of Moynihan’s statement that you can’t have your own facts. Facts are always based on observations that we all share.
That’s why science is so powerful. It’s based only on facts – observable phenomena and logical deductions about those phenomena.
And that’s why my father’s statements, no matter how loudly he screamed at me, were so weak. Not a single one of his “facts” was based on shared observations; they were only words strung together. Obama is not a socialist – most of his policies clearly support capitalism. Hillary is not a crook – she has been investigated over and over and even her worst critics can’t find any evidence of any crime that she has committed. Americans are not overtaxed – the numbers show they pay one of the lowest rates of taxes in the world. And so forth.
You can state anything you want as an opinion, but that does not make you correct, nor does it persuade anyone else to share your opinion. And simply saying something loudly and emphatically definitely does not make it a fact. Even if you heard a pundit say it on TV.