Facts (As Opposed to Opinions)

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.

Advertisements

Teaching Creationism

With all the talk — not to say screaming and shouting — about the teaching of Creationism in the schools (under the aegis of “Intelligent Design”) it’s hard to think that the battle about the teaching of evolution goes back well into the nineteenth century, to the days of Dwight Moody in the 1870s and Billy Sunday in the 1890s. These men joined a cadre of fellow itinerant preachers and evangelists who were worried that such teaching would destroy what we now call “family values.”

The controversy, of course, came to a head in the famous Scopes trial in 1925 and the spokesman for those evangelists and defenders of the family was William Jennings Bryan who was nothing if not passionate and even at times eloquent. His notion was that since the majority of people in the country at that time opposed the teaching of evolution, and since those folks paid the teachers’ salaries, evolution should not be taught. It was a question of majority opinion. Bryan did not trust science any more than today’s opponents of evolution do and he preferred to look at “the science of government” that tells us that the majority rules. He appealed to the Constitution (?) and argued that “They [the teachers] have no right to demand pay for teaching that which the parents and the taxpayers do not want taught. The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In the end, he said, “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education.” As it happens, that sentiment (while grounding a terribly weak argument) is still strong today as the attack on the public schools continues and kids are sent instead to charter schools or schooled at home where they are taught such things as creationism as science.

But we should be clear that this is not education. It is indoctrination, which is hardly the same thing. Teaching young people ideas in the form of beliefs that cannot be questioned has nothing whatever to do with education, whatever those ides might happen to be. The notion that creationism should be taught along with (or instead of) evolution presupposes that they are both science, which is false: the latter can be questioned and scrutinized the former cannot. People like Bryan worried that a small group of intellectuals was determining what should and should not be taught in the schools and the majority was being ignored. But this is precisely what schooling is all about: a small group of people who presumably know what kids need to know determines what the curriculum should be. And creationism should not be in the curriculum because creationism, even in the guise of “intelligent design,” is not science. The central feature of scientific claims is precisely that they can be tested. They can be shown by tests and evidence to be true or, more importantly, to be false. Creationism cannot be shown to be false; its truth depends on faith, not evidence. Therefore it is not science. And people who do not understand what science is and what science is not cannot be said to be educated or expected to succeed in the modern, and post-modern, world. And they certainly should not be determining curriculum in the schools, even if they constitute a majority.

Does this mean that kids should not be taught about the Bible? Of course not. It simply means that they should not be taught about the Biblical version of creation in the schools (public or private). If it is taught it should be taught at home or in the churches. So, in the end, Bryan’s dichotomy, education or religion, can be shown to be a false dichotomy, what logicians call “bifurcation.” It supposes that children must either be educated or raised in a religious atmosphere. It need not be either/or. It can be both. It’s simply a matter of propriety: which is to be taught where.

The notion that kids are going to be forced to give up their family’s religious beliefs because they are taught about evolution, which is a tested scientific theory, is absurd. They need to learn what science is and what it is not, especially if they are to survive in the modern world. If they are never taught such things as evolution their minds will remain stunted and they will, in the end, be the losers because they will not be able to contend in the real world where, like it or not, they will either succeed or fail. It is understandable that a great many people want their kids to hold on to the beliefs their parents have held all their lives. But it is a mistake to insist that by expanding their minds they will invariably give up those beliefs. This is one of the many fallacies that has accompanied the attack on intelligence in this country: the notion that mind and heart cannot live together in harmony within the same person.

A Fact Is Not An Opinion

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 — not facts. 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, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, 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 of simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the Baltimore Ravens will repeat as Super Bowl Champions, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “unless you are a really good bluffer, don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos.” 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 more primitive animal species 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 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 when they are testable but they cannot be disproved. If there is no way, in principle, to test a claim it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. Karl Popper said this was the case with Freud’s and Jung’s theories: they cannot be tested and proved or disproved, therefore they cannot be regarded as scientific fact — no matter how useful they might prove to be in explaining human behavior.

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 about the soul or the best basketball player ever could be tested or proved one way or the other, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion or belief. 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 plausible. There are core samples that support the claim on the basis of the amounts of carbon dioxide in the air in the past 150 years — since the Industrial Revolution. 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. 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.

Pat Robertson Of All People!

An interesting Yahoo News article recently surfaced that cries out for comment. It begins as follows:

It’s no surprise that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio took heat for an interview he gave to GQ magazine this month: Departing from scientific consensus, the rising Republican star refused to state whether the Earth is billions of years old or a few thousand, as many fundamentalist Christians believe.

What no one expected was the rebuke from televangelist and longtime Christian conservative leader Pat Robertson, dismissing theories of a “young Earth.”

“If you fight science, you are going to lose your children,” Robertson said last week during an appearance on the Christian Broadcast Network, the television empire he founded three decades ago

Robertson has shown considerable political savvy in taking this stand, though it puts him at risk of expulsion from the Society of the Spiritually Smug — of which he is a founding  member. He dares to swim against the tide of group prejudice built on the blind conviction that any science is hogwash that embraces such disturbing notions as evolution, the ridiculous notion that the earth is billions of years old, and denies that dinosaurs and humans walked the face of this earth together. Robertson is showing a side of himself we never thought we would see. Huzzah!

The interesting thing about this declaration coming from such an unlikely source is that it doesn’t appear to be based on the conviction that science might actually be correct in its claims about the age of the earth and other disturbing facts that are dismissed as mere opinions by the spiritually certain. I recall with fondness Penny’s boyfriend Zack in “The Big Bang Theory” telling the science geeks that the thing he liked about science is that “there is no one right answer.” Now that’s the sort of thing we might expect Pat Robertson to say.

In any event, Robertson hasn’t swung the full weight of his great stature behind science in making this astonishing statement: he is merely calculating that if the Republicans are going to stay married to the religious Right (which is always RIGHT, of course) then they are going to have to bring the young voters back into the fold, as it were. And those younger voters are apparently not buying into the load of anti-scientific malarkey that is being fed to them by the right hand of the righteous. And this despite the fact that “creationism” is being taught in many schools along with evolution (if the latter is taught at all) and there really are biology teachers out there in our high schools who think the dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together a few thousand years ago.

I must say I don’t give the young that much credit, knowing what I do about what passes for science in so many of our schools. But if it brings Robertson out from under his rock and causes him to declare that religion must stop fighting science (which St. Thomas Aquinas said centuries ago) then it’s fine with me. Let’s hear it for Pat Robertson!

Cold Hard Facts

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, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, 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 of 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 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 cannot be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. 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 plausible. 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. 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.