Can Facts Be False? YES. Here’s Why.

I assert that facts are objectively-provable statements, regardless of whether they are objectively true or objectively false.

Opposite Opposites

The main issue for me about whether facts can be false, is based on a concept I call “opposite opposites,”

Think for a moment of 2 things that could be opposites, such as long and short, both of which are lengths. If something has length, is it long? It can be, but something that is short also has length. Something short can also still be longer than something else, so a single object’s shortness or longness is disputable depending upon what it is compared to, even if proven objectively long or short by comparison to a specific other object. Is the long or short object appropriate for the task for which one like it of suitable length is needed?

Now think of something that is opposite both short and long, such as something having length, but being of indeterminate length. Whereas long or short are assigned variables, having indeterminate length means that the shortness or longness variable is unassigned. It has length but that length has not yet been firmly established.

“Is the object long?”
“I don’t know; compared to what?”

Similarly, I assert that facts can be either true or false, and that a fact can also be yet-to-be-proven.

The School Board Meeting

Consider this example:

A woman is attending a formal school board meeting, where attendees may raise issues at a certain point in the meeting. The school board approves a pay-raise for the superintendent, but a teacher wishes to raise the issue of whether the pay-raise is appropriate, outside of the portion of the meeting where issues are brought up by attendees. The teacher refuses to back down, and the teacher is arrested for disrupting the meeting.

A newspaper headline, the day following, reads, “Teacher arrested after questioning superintendent pay increase.”

Is the headline true? Yes, and no, at the same time. The teacher was arrested, yes, and the arrest did take place technically after the teacher questioned the superintendent’s pay increase, but the arrest was not made on the illegality of asking questions, but on the disruption of the formal meeting, out of turn.

If the headline were to say, “Teacher arrested after disrupting board meeting,” wouldn’t that statement be truer or more appropriate to the details of the issue? This is akin to the longness or shortness of something, compared to its need within a specific context.

Facts vs Opinion

Think also of a school lesson attempting to instruct young grade-schoolers about “how to tell fact from opinion.” A pair of sentences is given, with the student needing to discern which is the fact, and which is the opinion:

A. The ball is red.
B. The ball is pretty.

A. The man has two feet.
B. The man has ugly feet.

A. Yesterday was Tuesday.
B. Yesterday was lovely.

In each case — regardless of whether the ball were actually red, whether the man had two feet, or whether yesterday were actually Tuesday — A is the fact sentence, and B is the opinion sentence. Each of the A sentences could be proven true or false uniquely, but whether each of the B sentences could be proven true or false would depend on the person’s own perspective (or matters of objectivity vs subjectivity).

A Dictionary’s Entry As Proof

A somewhat hot-button issue is whether an entry in a dictionary “counts” as proof that facts are of indeterminate accuracy, or are strictly true (otherwise not being a fact if untrue). However, one must have a more-accurate understanding of how dictionaries function at the basic level:

Dictionaries record observations about how words are used and ranks those observations by popularity; they do not ensure that a particular usage is more-correct or less-correct. Restated: a dictionary is a list of observations about how words are used, but do not propose that those observations create a kind of limitation or standardization of how words are permitted to be used. As Merriam-Webster puts it, “..our references can speak with authority, without being authoritarian.”

A group of dictionary researchers, called lexicographers, observe usage in the everyday world — Facebook, magazine articles, newspapers, movie scripts, you name it. They observe the way the ordinary person uses words according to the way the word user intended and not according to whether it is “the right way” and document those ways into a body of data called a corpus. The corpus can then be consulted to see which ways were observed to be used the most, and that form of usage gets the “1.” within a word’s individual dictionary entry. The next-most-common observed gets the “2.” and so on.

Think of a Twitter hashtag search. When you hashtag search on Twitter, you pull up a list of ways that hashtag has been used — not a list of the correct or incorrect ways it has been used, simply a list of ways it has been used, perhaps ranked by most-recently used.

A dictionary is a kind of hashtag search of ordinary everyday speaking and writing, as if all of those were each their own hashtag, and ranked by most commonly observed ways the word was observed to be intended, not any kind of assertion that one use or another is the correct or incorrect way.

If you’re interested in more of this discussion of the fundamental essence of dictionaries, consider reading a treatment I’ve made of it here discussing a hypocritical aspect of the “rape culture” topic.

So, whether a dictionary lists “an objectively true statement” as one meaning of “fact” is irrelevant to whether a fact is-or-isn’t objectively true — but that simply more or less people use fact to mean that, without objectively asserting whether a fact is objectively true.

That said, you are at liberty to use fact to refer to statements which are objectively true. I, however, use it to refer to statements of ambiguous objective authenticity but differentiated from the subjective.

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