Words Have Meaning Part I: Facts

The universe is a vast, confusing, and changing cosmic terrarium. We are confined by its rules and trapped by its expanding boundaries. In an effort to add some structure to the chaos, hone our understanding of the mechanics, and persist information beyond our generation, we use words, numbers, pictures, labels, diagrams, standards, and many more tools to calculate, predict, record, and preserve observations about the various universal processes that surround us.

When we assign a verifiable value to an observation based on our best collective understanding, we call that value a “fact.” Facts are tricky because they represent the current understanding of an experience. That distinction is important because it’s easy to become disheartened when journalists or scientists discover new information or issue updates about a phenomenon that was long regarded as factual. Facts can change through further observation, experience, and the discovery of more detailed experimental evidence. So what do we believe? Are facts rock solid or can we assume that nothing can truly be known?

Let’s use Earth and Sun for examples. The understandings of Earth’s shape, its place in the solar system, and Sun’s place in the universe has changed over time.

It was an understood fact that Earth was flat in pre-classical Greece. Aristotle eventually showed evidence that Earth was in fact spherical. For a time, Earth’s flatness was a fact. Using our vast technology, we know now that Earth is an ellipsoid, but it wasn’t so easily understood in the past. Pre-classical Greeks were eventually proven to be incorrect and thus the facts changed.

Many people believed the geocentric (Earth-centered) model of the universe to be the correct explanation of Earth’s positions in the universe. The geocentric model remained as an agreed upon fact for approximately 2,000 years. When astronomers and scientists began studying planetary and other celestial objects combined with a greater understanding of physics, the facts changed towards a more heliocentric (Sun-centered) model of the universe.

Facts can thus be described as contextual-based and time-based explanations in response to an observation. When met with more information, we expand upon or reject pages in our current tome of facts.

It is important to note, however, that facts are not up for any kind of debate. We only adjust our facts when experiments reveal data which conflicts or supports our current understanding. We don’t attempt to adjust our understanding of gravity by randomly speculating that perhaps invisible pink unicorns are responsible for maintaining the force of gravity. Why not? Because we have no observations or evidence of any such invisible pink unicorns and thus do not adjust our understanding of the facts surrounding gravity.

In closing, facts are adjustable explanations of the world, but remain steadfast until new information and evidence is revealed through observation and experimentation.

See: http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm