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'Scientific' Facts

MicroscopeSometimes, a term that you've heard your whole life suddenly seems strange, That's how it is for me and 'scientific facts'. When you think about it, that phrase seems a bit redundant. If something is true, it's a fact. It's that simple. It doesn't matter how you came to know it. If a statement lines up with objective reality, it's a fact.

What does it add to describe a fact as 'scientific'? I guess the first thing is to understand is what's meant by science. Generally, there are two related meanings to the word. The first is that it's a method. We should all know this method from grade school - come up with an explanation, gather evidence to test the explanation, refine your explanation, and repeat. The second is the body of knowledge we've learned through that method. But the thing is, everything that has an objective answer can be examined through science.

Consider an example. Some would consider the Earth orbiting the sun a 'scientific' fact. We as humanity may have learned about it through science, and we as individuals may have learned it in science class, but it doesn't change the fact that it's true. It's not as if the Sun used to orbit the Earth until Galileo came along. Can't we just call it a plain old fact?

There are a couple reasons I bring this up. One is for the people who like to point out that science can't tell us anything with absolute certainty, and therefore science doesn't deal in facts (like this exchange I had). When you consider things like solipsism and Last Thursdayism, you have to grant that for fact to have any meaning, it must mean very high level of certainty, and not 100% absolute certainty. Going by that definition, science certainly does deal in facts.

The other is for the people who think of science as something separate, as not really describing things as part of their world. To them, it may be a 'scientific' fact that evolution occurs, but but in their world, science is wrong, so describing evolution as 'scientific' means it may not have actually occurred.

Oh well, I'm not be expressing myself as clearly as I'd like, but it's late on a Friday, and I'm about ready for some supper and a beer. I guess the main point I'm trying to get across is something I already said in the first paragraph. Calling something a 'scientific' fact is redundant. Statements are either true or not, and if they're true, then they're facts. Since we can study everything with an objective answer through science, it really doesn't add anything to describe any facts as scientific. If they're not scientific, they're not really facts to begin with.


Added 2010-02-01 I thought about this a bit over the weekend, and realized that that last sentence might come off as a bit smug. So, I thought that maybe I should list a couple examples.

As the first example, consider the claim that Hawaii is the 50th state of the U.S. To look at this scientifically, we need to gather evidence to support that claim. We could start off by looking at current legal documents, which show that Hawaii is definitely a state. We could move on to archived documents, and find the Hawaii Admission Act, which shows when Hawaii became a state. We could move on to find documents of when each of the previous 49 states became states. We could study newspaper articles from each of those periods for additional confirmation. After studying all that evidence, then we could say that it is a 'scientific' fact that Hawaii is the 50th state of the U.S.

Next, let's move on to something that some would think was a bit more subjective. Consider the claim that I love my wife and daughter. To test this, people could observe my behavior around my family, and the actions I commit in relation to my wife and daughter. They could study my involuntary facial expressions, to see how I react around them. They could observe my behavior when they're not around, looking for signs of loneliness, or observing how I talk about them. So, even the claim that I love my wife and daughter can be considered to be a 'scientific' fact, since we can use the scientific method to investigate it.

That's what I mean when I say that all facts worth talking about are scientific. Sometimes, we only practice rudimentary forms of the scientific method to determine their veracity, but, at least in principle, the scientific method can be applied to them.

Comments

Good points.

Unfortunately, there seems to be such a lack of science education that people imagine a divide between "scientific facts" and "common sense facts".

In addition, people with a religious bent often need to see things as being absolutely true. It is difficult for them to understand the idea that we can never be absolutely certain about anything.

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