I wrote this in the early years of this blog, but, with a few additional comments added, it seems especially relevant today with “false facts” floating around us. And, Heaven knows, we need a respite from the truly ugly political shenanigans going on.
One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.
While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact or simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.
As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.
One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways one might try to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot. Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.
The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they can no longer be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, even in principle, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. The Freudian position is usually denied the status of fact precisely because it cannot be proved — or disproved, even in principle. Still, it functions as an explanation of many of our human foibles and can be regarded as plausible.
We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is probable. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal to seek ways to reverse the trend. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.
Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.
Hugh, there are two themes that are of concern. The first people presenting opinion as fact. The US President often does this saying something like “Everyone knows….” Usually what follows is untrue.
The other theme is the term “expert” is over-used. People who are on a talk show are not necessarily experts. They just happen to be on TV. So, not only what they are espousing is often not fact, their opinions are not expert.
I get tickled that Terry Bradshaw is one of the NFL experts, as when he played QB, the coach went against trend at the time and would not let him call the plays. I realize they don’t do that now, but it was normative then.
When the coach of the old Baltimore Colts tried to call in some plays for Johnny Unitas, he went to the sidelines after a time-out and said if the coach wanted to play he could call the plays, otherwise it was his job! (Also he didn’t make a fool of himself after a brilliant play: he simply went to the sideline and waited for his next time out.)
I do believe in expertise. But we must be cautious about whom we address as “experts.”
Hugh, I love your Unitas example. He was a leader. Trying to read and pay attention to real news, on occasion someone has referred to me as an expert. My immediate response is I am not expert, I just happen to read. I am not an expert on climate change, but the vast majority of experts and formal science groups say it is.
Do you remember the flame retardant companies defending the science behind their products to prove it was effective against law suits that said they caused breast cancer when not burning and cancer for firefighters when burning. After much study, it was learned they were using science data from a Scandinavian scientist on a study unrelated who, when told, said the companies were using a faulty conclusion from his data.
Sorry for the long winded reply, but science experts who peer review and try to improve are worth listening. Keith
We have to be ever on the alert. There are experts and there are frauds who pose as experts. I always ask: what hidden agenda might this “expert” have? If I can see none, I will tend to agree with him or her.
However learned we maybe we are all the time in the hands of experts , and in the field of science there are many areas of expertise.
Some experts use their fame in their particular area to imply they are experts in all sorts of other fields and knowing there intellectual prowess we are inclined to believe them.
Take the brilliant biologist Richard Dawkins , his books in his area of expertise are brilliant but what are we to say about The God Delusion ?
The media know how we trust the experts and they play on it in a big way telling us exactly what Olympic sports men and women eat for breakfast— famous intelligent men and women must know just how to conduct their lives and we average Joe’s need to listen to them.
The same media tear famous men and women to pieces if there is a profit to be made from so doing.
In the end it’s all about profits!