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.

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Creationism As Science?

In the delightfully funny “Big Bang Theory” Penny’s boyfriend, Zack, wants to talk with the genius scientists who live across the hall because the thing he loves about science is “there’s no one right answer.” The laugh track cuts in and the “audience” laughs while the four scientists look at one another with dismay. I hate laugh tracks, but while it is a funny moment it is also a bit sad, because Zach’s statement reflects much common opinion today when an alarming number of “educated” people in this country (which group does not, apparently, include Zach) have no idea what science is and what it is not. Just consider: a recent study done at the University of Texas revealed that four in ten public school teachers of biology think that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time; three out of five adult Americans do not know that DNA governs heredity; and one in four Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. And most Americans, I dare say, think science and technology are the same thing.

Science is a word that describes a particular method of getting at the truth about our world and the universe in general. It leans on empirical evidence, gathered by the five senses, and/or mathematical proof. Both empirical evidence and mathematical proof are accessible to others in the scientific community and no scientific claim is accepted unless it is verifiable by anyone at any time. This notion of independent verification is key to the scientific method. When the claim was made not long ago that cold fusion had been discovered there was much excitement until it was later shown by other scientists that there were errors in the testing procedure and the claims were proved false. That is also a key: the claims must be open to independent testing and it must be possible to prove them false. If they cannot be proved false, they are accepted as true — subject to further tests.

Evolution is a scientific theory that has been supported again and again by empirical evidence to the point now where it is indisputable fact. But there are those who are convinced that evolution is incompatible with Genesis and either do not want evolution taught in the schools or want it taught alongside of creationism, or what has come to be called “intelligent design” in an attempt to make it sound more respectable. Both of these views argue that God created the world and the assumption is that He couldn’t have done this if species evolved as scientists contend.

Now there are two things we need to consider: (1) are evolution and creationism incompatible? and (2) is creationism science? The answer to the latter question is a resounding “no,” since independent testing is not possible; nor is it possible to prove the theory false. What would even count as a test for this view? But the answer to the first question is “yes,” and that’s why the battle that is going on in the schools is absurd. Both creationism and evolution can be true (for different reasons), since God could have chosen to create animal and plant life through evolution. But since creationism is not science, it should not be taught in the schools: it is a matter of faith, not reason. Thus while students should be taught evolution in science classes, they are also perfectly free to accept creationism on faith.

One is reminded of the medieval battle between reason and faith that went on in the universities and which the Catholic Church attempted in its way to adjudicate. In the end, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental Suma Theologica to reconcile faith and reason, to show that they were perfectly compatible.  Of course if there were conflicts Thomas insisted that faith had the final word. That was where things stood when Galileo ran into the Inquisition and had to recant and allow that the evidence he had about the earth’s motion was merely a theory, since it was in direct conflict with the Bible which speaks of the motion of the sun. Now, except for that 25% exposed by the Texas survey noted above, we now know that Galileo was right, and most regard the Biblical statements as metaphorical — true in their way, but not matters of science.

The same seems to me to be the case with creationism: it may be true in its way, but it most assuredly is not science. And since it is a matter of faith, not reason, it should not be taught in the schools — especially in schools supported by taxes in a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. But in any case it should not be taught in any school as science, which it clearly is not.

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.

The Ugly American Award

Years ago I read a book titled The Ugly American. The title’s reference was to the U.S. government and its unwillingness to understand another culture — in this case Viet Nam. Also, it referred to the central character, Homer Atkins, who was the “typical” American abroad: brash, loud, rude, and always calling attention to himself. As I say, the recollection is fuzzy.  But this stereotype may well fit a great many Americans abroad, though not all certainly. However, the characterization of this country as smug and ignorant of other cultures is spot on.

In any event, I think we should have a contest with an award for the ugliest American each year. My nomination for this year’s award is Rick Santorum. You remember Rick? He ran for President recently and his name is in the news again because he led the battle in the Senate against ratification of a United Nations treaty called “The Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.”A well-written op-ed piece by Gail Collins in the New York Times tells us about the recent vote in the Senate on that item:

Santorum is still in there swinging. Lately, he’s been on a crusade against a dangerous attempt by the United Nations to help disabled people around the world. This week, he won! The Senate refused to ratify a U.N. treaty on the subject. The vote, which fell five short of the necessary two-thirds majority, came right after 89-year-old Bob Dole, the former Republican leader and disabled war veteran, was wheeled into the chamber to urge passage.

“We did it,” Santorum tweeted in triumph.

One does wonder where Santorum is coming from. He railed against the bill because he regarded it as “an assault on the family.” Apparently he is convinced that since the bill notes that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” this translates into an assault on the (American) family. I must confess I fail to connect the dots. He is worried about home schooling and the right of parents to keep their kids out of schools where they might be taught sex education (horrors!) and what science really is. Santorum is famous for his support of the “intelligent design” theory of creationism which he has said is “a legitimate scientific theory” and ought to be taught in the schools. But none of this explains his actions on the U.N. treaty. I simply wonder: it is hard to get inside a deranged head. But it is no surprise to discover that the billions of dollars that support the Tea Party are pushing this agenda. As Collins notes at the close of her piece:

The big worry was, of course, offending the Tea Party. The same Tea Party that pounded Mitt Romney into the presidential candidate we came to know and reject over the past election season. The same Tea Party that keeps threatening to wage primaries against incumbents who don’t do what they’re told. The Tea Party who made those threats work so well in the last election that Indiana now has a totally unforeseen Democratic senator.

In any event, the treaty was not ratified, sending a message to the rest of the world that this country doesn’t care about persons with disabilities. This message coupled with our armed presence around the world, coupled (again) with those vacationing Americans who do behave like Homer Atkins — all of these things combine, I say, to further the image of Americans as unfeeling, militant, small-minded, self-absorbed idiots.

However, I want to post a disclaimer: while the majority of the Senate apparently fits that mold and a growing number of Americans do so as well (as mounting evidence seems to suggest), none of my blog readers are in that mold. I sincerely hope I am not, and most of my friends are not — to my knowledge. Indeed, I would hope that most Americans don’t fit such an ugly mold. But there it is thanks to people like Rick Santorum, my nominee for Ugly American of the Year.

Creationism?

In the delightfully funny “Big Bang Theory” Penny’s boyfriend, Zack, wants to talk with the genius scientists who live across the hall because the thing he loves about science is “there’s no one right answer.” The laugh track cuts in and the “audience” laughs while the four scientists look at one another with dismay. I hate laugh tracks, but while it is a funny moment it is also a bit sad, because Zach’s statement reflects much common opinion today when an alarming number of “educated” people in this country (which group does not, apparently, include Zach) have no idea what science is and what it is not. Just consider: a recent study done at the University of Texas revealed that four in ten public school teachers of biology think that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time; three out of five adult Americans do not know that DNA governs heredity; and one in four Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. And most Americans, I dare say, confuse science with technology.

Science is a word that describes a particular method of getting at the truth about our world and the universe in general. It leans on empirical evidence, gathered by the five senses, and/or mathematical proof. Both empirical evidence and mathematical proof are accessible to others in the scientific community and no scientific claim is accepted unless it is verifiable by anyone at any time. This notion of independent verification is key to the scientific method. When the claim was made not long ago that cold fusion had been discovered there was much excitement until it was later shown by other scientists that there were errors in the testing procedure and the claims were proved false. That is also a key: the claims must be open to independent testing and it must be possible to prove them false. If they cannot be proved false, they are accepted as true — subject to further tests.

Evolution is a scientific theory that has been supported again and again by empirical evidence to the point now where it is indisputable fact. But there are those who are convinced that evolution is incompatible with Genesis and either do not want evolution taught in the schools or want it taught alongside of creationism, or what has come to be called “intelligent design” in an attempt to make it sound more respectable. Both of these two views argue that God created the world and the assumption is that He couldn’t have done this if species evolved as scientists contend.

Now there are two things we need to consider: (1) are evolution and creationism compatible? and (2) is creationism science? The answer to the latter question is a resounding “no,” since independent testing is not possible; nor is it possible to prove the theory false. What would even count as a test for this view? But the answer to the first question is “yes,” and that’s why the battle that is going on in the schools is absurd. Both creationism and evolution can be true (for different reasons), since God could have chosen to create animal and plant life through evolution. But since creationism is not science, it should not be taught in the schools: it is a matter of faith, not reason. Thus while students should be taught evolution in science classes, they are also perfectly free to accept creationism on faith.

One is reminded of the medieval battle between reason and faith that went on in the universities and which the Catholic Church attempted in its way to adjudicate. In the end, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental Suma Theologica to reconcile faith and reason, to show that they were perfectly compatible. If there were conflicts, of course, Thomas insisted that faith had the final word. That was where things stood when Galileo ran into the Inquisition and had to recant and allow that the evidence he had about the earth’s motion was merely a theory, since it was in direct conflict with the Bible which speaks of the motion of the sun. Now, except for that 25% exposed by the Texas survey noted above, we now know that Galileo was right, and most regard the Biblical statements as metaphorical — true in their way, but not matters of science.

The same seems to me to be the case with creationism: it may be true in its way, but it most assuredly is not science. And since it is a matter of faith, not reason, it should not be taught in the schools — especially in schools supported by taxes in a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. But it should not be taught in any school as science, which it clearly is not.

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.