Facts and Theories

by Gene Callahan

“The theorist who drops anchor here or there and puts out his equipment of theoretic hooks and nets in order to catch the fish of the locality, interrupts but does not betray his calling. And indeed, the unconditional engagement of understanding must be arrested and inquiry must be focused upon a this if any identity is to become intelligible in terms of its postulates. An investigation which denies or questions its own conditions surrenders its opportunity of achieving its own conditional perfection; the theorist who interrogates instead of using his theoretic equipment catches no fish.” – Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct

We often hear controversy today over whether something is a “fact” or a “theory.” This arises both in the debate over anthropogenic global warming and in the disputes between creationists and Darwinists: Is global warming a “proven fact” or a “speculative theory”? Is evolution a “scientific fact” or “just a theory”? For instance, at globalwarming.com, I find the statement: “While some would call global warming a theory, others would call it a proven set of facts.”

Or, at the About.com entry on atheism, there is the claim:

“In reality, evolution is both a fact and a theory.

“To understand how it can be both, it is necessary to understand that evolution can be used in more than one way in biology. A common way to use the term evolution is simply to describe the change in the gene pool of a population over time; that this occurs is an indisputable fact.”

Wikipedia offers a similar (I say similarly misleading) explanation of the distinction between theory and fact concerning evolution:

“The ‘fact of evolution’ refers to the changes in the genetic material of a population of biological organisms over time, which are known to have occurred through scientific observations and experiments. The ‘theory of evolution’ refers to the modern evolutionary synthesis, which is the current scientific explanation of how these changes occur.”

Chemist Michael Blaber defines a fact as “An indisputable truth,” as above about.com seems to do as well. He offers, as an example, “It is a fact that on June 30, 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia, an explosion equivalent to about 15 million tons of TNT occurred.” But this is certainly not indisputable! What we have are certain historical reports of people hearing an explosion, of trees being flattened, and so on, as well as a crater. These are the basis of an historical theory that there was such an explosion. Now, scientists can accept that theory as a fact and go on to investigate why it occurred. But they also could question this conclusion — perhaps people were mistaken about the day the explosion occurred. Perhaps they were subject to some form of mass hysteria.

Whether something is a fact or a theory is not, in itself, a matter independent of the judgment of the person using the term. x is a fact for me if, for the purposes of devising my theory, I am going to take the proposition asserting x as unproblematically true, while x is a theory for me if I am investigating the basis for asserting it. Thus, when I am doing work on constitutional theory, I take the proposition ‘Rome had no written constitution’ to be a “given” fact, because it is the universal conclusion of historians investigating that time, because I am not attempting to do original historical research, and because one has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is always a given in experience. On the other hand, for an historian who feels she may have uncovered some startling new evidence that Rome did have a written constitution, the proposition that it did not is a theory and not a fact.

In terms of the evolutionary discussion from Wikipedia, “the changes in the genetic material of a population of biological organisms over time” are not facts because they “are known to have occurred through scientific observations and experiments,” but because, for the purposes of formulating a theory of evolution, we accept the propositions concerning these things as givens. But these “facts” are theoretical when seen from the perspective of, say, a theory of how to detect genetic changes that occur over time, or a theory of what, exactly, constitutes a genetic change.

Similarly, for a scientist investigating global warming, the temperature readings of thermometers will be facts. (He might question whether the thermometers were placed in the right spots, but it is highly unlikely he will question them as thermometers. To do so would ensure that he would make little progress on the topic of global warming.) On the other hand, someone working on the theory of temperature-measuring devices will not accept these readings as facts about the temperature, but as theoretical statements about the relationship between the temperature and such a device.

Even the most ordinary, “plain” facts can become theoretical under the right circumstances. As I am typing this, I can look out my window and see a snow-covered tree in front of me. (Yes, a tree grows in Brooklyn!) Ordinarily, the proposition “There is a tree in front of me” is about as factual as propositions can get. But, should I suspect I have been slipped a powerful mind-altering substance and am having my perceptions deliberately manipulated, I may come to regard “There is a tree in front of me” as a theoretical proposition calling for further investigation. Or seeing a red wall in front of me, it may appear an obvious “fact” that the wall is red. But should someone point out that the room is lit by a red light, that fact may appear much more theoretical. Indeed, the whole philosophy of Descartes was built upon treating as theoretical all of the “plain facts” of ordinary life.

Thus, the distinction between fact and theory is not one of the certainty of the proposition(s) involved, but one of the attitude of the researcher towards the proposition(s). The germ of truth in the mistaken idea that “facts” are certain while “theories” are speculative is that a higher degree of justified belief in a proposition often will make it more likely that a researcher in a “higher-level discipline” will treat it as a fact to be used and not a theory to be questioned. But there are times when it makes sense to question a well-established “fact” and treat it as a “mere” theory (as Einstein did with Newton’s absolute space-time), and other times when it is sensible to take some speculative theory as a fact and see where that gets us.

So the question “Is global warming a fact or a theory?” should be answered “It is both,” but not because some “parts” of it are factual and others are theoretical, but because all propositions can be treated as stating facts or theories.

For those working on the science of global warming, it is and must always remain a theory. Now, perhaps someday the theory will be so well accepted that no one bothers to work on it anymore, and then it may be called “a simple fact.” Of course, even then, someone may call it into question anew, as happened with, say, Newtonian mechanics at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For someone developing a theory about what the proper public climate policies should be, there is a choice as to whether or not to take anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as a fact. That choice will involve many factors, such as evaluations of the possible bias of researchers, evaluations of the consequences of wrongly regarding AGW as factual and those of wrongly regarding it as non-factual, and more.

39 thoughts on “Facts and Theories

  1. You can say this for almost all information we use in making choices, can’t you? Not that I object to your conclusion, “the question “Is global warming a fact or a theory?” should be answered ‘It is both'”, but some distinctions surely are worth preserving for the sake of clarity. That the world has become a bit hotter in the past 100 years is as close to a fact as one get. That human activity caused this is, on a spectrum, closer to a theory. The forecasts of future temperature increases are, well, guesswork. But all forecasts are informed guesses, some better informed than others.

  2. It would be very helpful for the advocates of theories to specify what kind of evidence (facts) would count against their theory. That would speed up the process of critical discussion.
    It would also demonstrate that they are genuine,open-minded scholars, dedicated to the pursuit of truth, not just advocates for a cause.

  3. In the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 27th), Russ Roberts asked “Is the Dismal Science Really a Science?” Today’s paper has 3 excellent letters commenting on Roberts. One by an evident Hayekian explains why economic theories cannot be reliably subject to falsification.

    The shortest letter is from Alex Pollock of AEI. “Economics is history trying to be physics.”

  4. Economics, correct economics, is far more science than most of the science accepted as such. Across all science, empiricism runs wild with little thought of the limits to such inquiry. Medicine and climate science are two of the most obvious examples.

  5. It all depends what you mean by Science. Originally to be scientific merely meant to adopt a systematic, deliberate and maybe experimental approach, whether in academic topics, cooking or angling. Post Newton science turned into Science and some kind of empiricist or inductive Scientific Method was enthroned as the gold standard. This prompted a kind of “cargo cult” with people doing their best to mimic the activities that were supposed to deliver Scientific “cargo”.
    Hume put a spoke in the Inductivist wheel and the inductivists are still trying to save Science by finding some way to make Induction work.
    Kant invented apriorism to save Science from Hume and this prompted many diverse lines of thought including Misian praxeology which functions as an alternative to Inductivism by providing a method of discovery and proof without resorting to empiricism.
    Popper took on board a modified form of the Kantian a priori (Barry Smith later called this “fallible apriorism”). He claimed that there is no such thing as the Scientific Method and he showed that Inductivism is not necessary for science (small s).
    What if we stop agonizing over Science and science and just talk about the comparative merits of theories in terms of their capacities to solve problems (understanding and pattern prediction), to unify differents areas of discourse,to stand up to various kinds of tests, and to be helpful in practical matters.
    Newtonian physics did well on those criteria, even though it was not the end of the road for physics, and so does Austrian economics.

  6. The drone of Fact and Theory,
    oft makes me weary.

    That Truth would work through Hist’ry,
    I’m Positive would lead to Mis’ry.

    The day will come when the Dismal Science,
    understands its Confirmation Bias.

    Then instead of being Empirical Liars,
    We’ll light proper aprioristic fires.

  7. “You can say this for almost all information we use in making choices, can’t you?”

    Yes, Chidem, that is just my point!

    “but some distinctions surely are worth preserving for the sake of clarity.”

    I am not against distinctions. But what I am contending is that these distinctions are made by the theorist, not by the “data.”

    “That the world has become a bit hotter in the past 100 years is as close to a fact as one get.”

    For most of us, yes… but not for a hypothetical “Einstein” of temperature measurement, who is about to overthrow our whole theory of thermometers (as the actual Einstein overthrew our whole theory of clocks and measuring rods).

  8. Adam, I’m not even sure what moral facts would be! But morality is primarily a practice, and moral theories are only the shed skins of a practice that has moved on.

  9. You post clears some things up for me, Gene. Thanks for that.

    I guess you agree that we should be skeptical of science, given the theoretical nature of facts. I suppose that is part of what you’re saying. Long ago Richard Feynman complained of cargo-cult science. And he did not exempt physics from the tendency to produce bogus results. John Ioannidis has explored “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”


    Long before Ioannidis, Diaconis (http://www-stat.stanford.edu/~cgates/PERSI/Courses/magicalthinking.pdf) lamented that “controlled magical thinking is here to stay.”

    Berger, Matthews, Grosch. (2007. “On improving research methodology in clinical trials,” Statistical Methods in Medical Research pp. 1-12) give three examples of “inappropriate yet regimented research methods.” In the most striking of the three examples “run-in bias” is created by deleting adverse events prior to randomization. “In randomized treatment trials,” they explain, “it is common to pre-treat the patients with the active treatment, evaluate their outcomes, and determine which patients to randomize based upon those outcomes. Bad outcomes (even deaths) prior to randomization do not make it into the analysis and do not count against the active treatment under scrutiny” (p. 4).

    Please don’t get me wrong. I’m all for science. But science is not immune to human frailty and magical thinking.

  10. Gene, yes, data doesn’t come up on its own power and inform you what’s what. We generate data according to our notions. That’s all very well, and no doubt a new Einstein could emerge and show up the errors of today’s science.

    Isn’t it too easy, though, to throw up your hands and say, gee, we can’t know a thing, it could all be wrong, let’s not claim anything. It’s one thing to be skeptical, another to let it get in the way of making the best of the current state of knowledge.

  11. Re you hypothetical “Einstein”: despite relativity theory, we still use clocks to measure time. True, timekeeping technology has changed but that could have happened with no knowledge of relativity–which is not something one really needs to worry about in daily life.

  12. Chidem, nothing I’ve posted asserts that “we can’t know a thing”!

  13. Looks like you agree with the old pragmatists. For instance, William James: “Skepticism cannot be ruled out by any set of thinkers as a possibility against which their conclusions are secure; and no empiricist ought to claim exemption from this universal liability.” However, he argues that skepticism can make no headway against mystical beliefs. It works best with hypotheses that the holder does not have a strong interest in. So there are several levels–facts, beliefs, theories, hypotheses.

  14. There’s a great quote from the historian EH Carr that goes something like this: facts are like fish; which ones you catch depend on where you go fishing and what kind of bait you use.

    That’s not exact, but catches the idea.

  15. A theory in fact is a level of description that is necessary to explain an interrelated set of facts. There are theories of evolution — natural selection, sexual selection, group selection, etc. — that explain the fact that species change over time. Mutations, etc. are facts, and we know that mutations cause changes. What is the selection mechanism? Well, we have theories for that.

    Global warming is a fact. If we collect a series of temperature readings across the globe, and they all show an upward trend, then there is warming over time. That is a fact. What causes it? That is, what explains the set of facts? Well, there are several theories about that — anthropogenic warming, solar cycles (supported by similar warming on Mars and Jupiter, for example), etc. Global warming is a fact, but anthropogenic warming is NOT a fact. It is a theory.

    We want to erase these distinctions because of the way others have misused the term “theory.” It doesn’t benefit anyone if we misuse it right back in a different way for our own purposes.

  16. Well, Troy, I examined a view of facts and theories and explained why I think it is mistaken. You have simply repeated that (as I take it) mistaken view without addressing my argument at all! That’s a very curious way of proceeding.

  17. I do address the specific examples you give. My objection is that you are taking what are two clearly distinct categories that have always been recognized as such, and are attempting to muddle them. That doesn’t benefit anyone.

    From wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn:

    “•a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of hypotheses
    •hypothesis: a tentative insight into the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena”

    Specifically, a theory is able to generate hypotheses, which can then be tested. A fact cannot. A theory is an explanation. A fact is not an explanation.

    Fact, from the same Princeton source:

    “•a piece of information about circumstances that exist or events that have occurred; “first you must collect all the facts of the case”
    •a statement or assertion of verified information about something that is the case or has happened; “he supported his argument with an impressive array of facts”
    •an event known to have happened or something known to have existed; “your fears have no basis in fact”; “how much of the story is fact and how much fiction is hard to tell”
    •a concept whose truth can be proved; “scientific hypotheses are not facts” ”

    By definition, a theory can never be proved. We can prove that a camel is a mammal, but we can never prove the theory of natural selection. The theory of natural selection is considered a better or worse theory than other theories to the extent that it can generate hypotheses that can be tested, that help us uncovered new facts. Facts do nothing of the sort.

    Muddling things do not help our case. Muddling things and confusing categories only make us seem desparate. Like it or not, Creationism is a theory. It’s a bad theory. It is a bad theory according to the proper definition of theory. If we stick to that proper definition and avoid making desparate attempts (which really only weakens our position), we will make and continue to make headway.

  18. Troy:

    “I do address the specific examples you give.”

    Yes, but only to re-state the very arguments I was criticizing, without addressing my criticism!

    “My objection is that you are taking what are two clearly distinct categories…”

    But I am not denying this distinction! I am analyzing what it is based upon.

    “that have always been recognized as such…”

    But perhaps not in the way you think! For instance, to some ancient Greeks, theoria was knowledge that was certain (e.g., in geometry) while ordinary facts were doxa, or mere opinion.

    “Specifically, a theory is able to generate hypotheses, which can then be tested. A fact cannot. A theory is an explanation. A fact is not an explanation.”

    Again, you seem to believe I am denying any difference between facts and theories, which I am not. But in any case, both of your claims are wrong:

    “How did John die?”

    “Mary shot him.” (A fact explaining.)

    “Wow, she must have been made at him.” (Fact generates a hypothesis.)

    “We can prove that a camel is a mammal…”

    And mammal is a theoretical construct!

    “Facts do nothing of the sort.”

    Again, just flat-out, plainly wrong.

    “Muddling things do not help our case. Muddling things and confusing categories only make us seem desparate.”

    Who is this “us,” kemosabe? I am not trying to make any case, nor am I desperate about anything. I’m just trying to think my way clearly through the difference between facts and theories.

  19. 1) I meant “mad at him,” not “made at him”!

    2) Re camels: I bet a few years ago you would have told me that it was a “fact” that are nine planets. But it turns out that today, it is a “fact” that there are only eight! I recall when I was young it was a fact that mushrooms were in the plant kingdom. Today it is a fact that they are their own separate kingdom, and more closely related to animals than to plants!

  20. Hold on a second. Let’s take the camel example. We can’t really imagine a scenario in which we decide camels are not mammals, but overall the rest of our knowledge is not challenged. Thus, the camel’s status as mammal is utterly factual for pretty much any analysis, argument, or description in which camels might be considered. The camel’s status as mammal falls into question only in scenarios that are wildly speculative for us here and now. We can only vaguely imagine the idea of properly informed and competant persons raising doubts about whether camels are mammals; we cannot provide a vivid and distinct scenario. There is no gain to declaring the camel’s status as mammal “certain,” for we cannot reliably distinguish what knowledge is subject to change and what knowledge is not. But from within the bounds of that which we can discuss in clear and distinct terms, the camel’s status as mammal is impossible to challenge. Thus, that status is a “fact” and not a “theory.”

    The theory of speciation by natural selection is “factual” in about the same sense, I think. We can imagine changes to the theory and limitations in its scope of application and so on. It’s not so easy, however, to imagine a total overthrow that would leave science in general, let alone biology, otherwise unchallenged. We cannot really imagine the sheer overthrow of Darwinism except in a vague and speculative way. The general thrust of the theory is thus a “fact” that (if I may draw an the inference) the courts should treat as such.

  21. Is there a difference between “the facts” and statements of fact?

    A statement of fact is either true or false. It is a description of a possible fact that may also correspond to the facts, but the issue of its correspondense is always an open question–even if we don’t question is all the time.

    Sometimes we say “the facts,” but we are really referring to a set of propositions (or particular statements) that we suppose correspond to the facts.

  22. Roger, I mentioned that some theories may become so well-established that no one is challenging them anymore, and so they become, in essence, “mere facts.” You seem to be repeating just what I said in comments above, but as though it is a challenge to my view!

    By the way, the whole kingdom arrangement of living things has, in fact, been radically re-done in recent years (since we ere kids) due to cladistics. The Archaea were essentially unknown then, but are now considered one of the three major domains (higher than the kingdoms). And we have a good analogy to a camel not being a mammal anymore — “reptiles” is now recognized as a slipshod category — crocodiles, for instance, are cladistically closer to birds than they are to turtles!

  23. Lee:

    “We are suspended in language such that we don’t know what is up and what is down. The word ‘reality’ is also a word, a word which we must learn to use correctly.” — Niels Bohr

  24. Gene,

    You said, “You seem to be repeating just what I said in comments above, but as though it is a challenge to my view!” Yeah, that’s blogging for you. Sorry about that. I suppose I was trying to get the issues straight in my own head.

    For me at least, your cladistics example is informative. You can indeed have this sort of realignment of everything that produces surprising changes in our thinking, even to the point of radical reclassifications. Cool. But it is hard to see how you could have an isolated re-assignment like “Oh! Camels are really plants!” Presumably, you agree with that remark.

    I remember Kripke’s stuff about discovering that cats are really dog-like. I confess it never made a lot of sense to me in part because his example seemed to require that the news about cats did not ramify in any way through our system of knowledge. I always figured that such a revolution in our model of cats would cause us to reclassify everything or otherwise radically alter our whole system of knowledge. But I haven’t looked at that since I was an undergrad, so I might be way off here.

  25. Is global warming a fact or a theory?” should be answered “It is both,”

    Without question.

    However, for someone developing a theory about proper public policy, that policy will be clearly wrong if it puts my money where the policy makers mouth is by force.

  26. I’m late to this party, but Troy if you are still reading: What do you say when a previously accepted “fact” turns out to be wrong? Your hardline stance against Gene seems to be ruling out this possibility, but it happens a lot when yesterday’s “facts” turn into tomorrow’s obsolete theories.

    Chidem I think you are right that Gene’s post, by itself, is uncomfortably nihilistic but I don’t think he said anything wrong. I think really what people mean by “fact” is, “A theory in which we have placed supreme confidence,” at least if it refers to something empirical. (E.g. to say a bachelor is an unmarried male is not a theory.)

  27. That’s my point. A fact, by definition, cannot be proven wrong. Only theories can. We have in the past mistaken facts for theories, and this attempt to bring that mistake back is what I’m objecting to here.

    I’ve been away for a while, so let me address a few things. Yes, I am aware of the ancient Greek usage. I shouldn’t have said “always” — that was a clear overstatement. I should have said that this is how “theory” has been used in the Modern Era and, as Wittgenstein would point out, actual present-day use is what matters. I see the pointing back to the original Greek as something akin to arguing that an airplane is really a bicycle, since it had its origins in that technology. No scientist uses theory or fact the way Gene wants to use them. Most scientists would in fact look upon this discussion as faintly ridiculous and unnecessarily obfuscating what are clear and obvious terms to any scientist practicing the hard sciences. It’s why they laugh at us in the “soft” sciences and the humanities, I’m afraid.

    But that having been said, the example of Pluto is hardly sufficient. Pluto remains what it has been since its formation. It has the chemical constituents it has, regardless of what one may think. We can call Pluto this or that, but those name changes don’t chance the facts about Pluto. Recently we decided to redefine the term “planet,” which only alterned the truth statement, “Pluto is a planet,” from being true to being false, but changed nothing about the facts of the orbiting entity — though it may clarify, in the redefinition, our understanding of its nature.

    Let me take another marginal entity. It is obvious that a camel is a mammal, but it is less obvious that a platypus is. It would take a major redefinition of mammal to exclude camels, but only a marginal one to exclude platypuses. All we would have to do is say that mammals must give birth to live young (as well as have hair, be warm-blooded, and feed their young milk), and platypuses (and echidnas) would be excluded. Now, what fact does this change about them? Nothing. They are still evolutionarily between reptiles and marsupials, they still lay eggs, they still have warm blood and hair, and they still feed their young milk. The theory of “mammal” changed, but the facts about platypuses have not. And in doing so, we change truth statements one can make, but not the facts. Indeed, one of the problems I see here is an inability to distinguish between truth and facts — which is what is really mudding the waters about theories and facts. Facts can be true, and theories can be true, but facts are not theories, nor vice versa.

  28. “That’s my point. A fact, by definition, cannot be proven wrong. Only theories can. We have in the past mistaken facts for theories…”

    Oh boy. Yes, if we had the mind of God, there would be nothing theoretical at all, and we would see all facts as they are. But we don’t. And, as such, everything is, for us, more or less theoretical.

    “No scientist uses theory or fact the way Gene wants to use them.”

    I just got done reading Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy, and he would agree with my point here. As would Poincare. In fact, I ran this by a friend of mine who does philosophy of science at LSE, and he said my point is so obvious it wouldn’t be worthwhile writing up as a paper! As Karl Popper would say, “All facts are theory laden.”

    And Troy, you were the one who offered a classificatory scheme as a “fact” — it will hardly do for you to now complain that I’ve chosen a bad example! In any case, you are equivocating between two different concepts of ‘fact’ here. One is “The way things are.” Of course, the way things are is the way things are, and that doesn’t change based on our ideas. The other, which I’m discussing, is a human statement or idea about the way things are. As we do not have infallible minds, these statements are always open to revision, i.e., they can always ‘revert’ back to a theory subject to change.

  29. You still haven’t addressed my main point, which is that you don’t know the difference between fact and truth. Or that facts are by definition interpreted by theories. Since theories are the interpreters of facts (or, specifically, the relations among facts), they cannot be facts. However, both facts and theories can both be true. More, facts are always true, and theories can be but are not necessarily true. If we had a vin diagram, True would be the big circle, in which would like Facts. Then we would have another circle, partly overlapping True, but not overlapping Fact at all, labeled Theories. A fact can never be disproven — the distance between the sun and the earth on this particular date is invariable, and any differences in units of measurement would be translatable into each other — but a theory can be. More, a fact cannot give rise to hypotheses. Only a theory can do that. Thus, a fact cannot tell us to look for some other fact. Only the hypotheses of a theory are capable of doing that. Let me give a literally Darwinian example.

    On Madagascar, there is a white orchid with a foot-long nectar tube.

    Now, using no theory whatsoever, give me a nonrandom fact.

    You can’t, of course, because you need a theory to come up with a fact that has some relationship to the facts given.

    Darwin’s theory of natural selection caused him to posit, upon learning of this orchid, that there would be a yet-undiscovered (in his day) moth that would have a foot-long proboscis with which to access the nectar. The theory makes it clear that a white flower would likely evolve to make it easier for nocturnal creatures to see it. The nectar tube makes it clear that it had to have coevolved with some creature to ensure pollination, meaning there had to be something out there that could pollinate the orchid. The tube was too thin for the tongue of a bat, so a moth seemed the best possibility. Indeed, the hypothesis proved true, as the actual moth was eventually discovered. Thus the theory of natural selection and coevolution are strengthened by the success of the hypothesis in predicting the actual existence of a kind of animal, but it is hardly rendered a fact by being able to do so. Indeed, the creationist could say that if such a flower existed, then God had to have created a moth to pollinate it, for some of the same reasons above. That theory generates a hypothesis that is also able to help one uncover a fact of nature, but that doesn’t make creationism a fact — or even true.

  30. “You still haven’t addressed my main point…”

    And you still haven’t even vaguely understood my main point.

  31. Just musing without worrying about who said what . . .

    1) Our interpretive categories always precede the facts. Even if you say there are somehow “basic” or “original” sensations from which everything else follows, those sensations are way below the level of “facts” as we usually use the term. Personally, I think its interpretation all the way down. In any event, however, you have to drill way below the level of ordinary “facts” to get to anything that might precede interpretation.

    2) We are really talking about things. We are talking about our descriptions of things. Descriptions can be wrong. Descriptions make implicit assumptions. Descriptions simplify. Descriptions, in other words, are theoretical. Our descriptions include reference to “things.” An element of my description that goes unquestioned *in my description* is a fact, but only because the way I relate to that element in my description. I think this last remark restates Gene’s main point.

  32. Gene,

    I understand that you argue in the initial posting that there is no difference between facts and theories, but then argued in your subsequent replies that you in fact do make a distinction between the two. Your arguments are all over the place. I have addressed the real problems with your arguments, and you haven’t responded to any of them.


    Thank you for your Kantian interpretation. In the real world of evolved organisms, if your interpretations don’t match reality, you get eaten by lions, and your species goes away. Facts belong to the correspondence theory of truth. Things correspond to facts. Relationships require interpretations to understand those relationships.

    But if you prefer, if everyone using the same methods agree on the same interpretation of a phenomenon, then it is a fact. If there is any room at all for disagreement, then it is a theory. The first example pretty much renders the definition of interpretation absurd, but do what you will.

  33. Troy,

    Your first post on this thread said, “Global warming is a fact.” Now you say, ” If there is any room at all for disagreement, then it is a theory.” Apparently, there is no chance at all that there is not legitimate upward trends in temperatures? No chance that, say, it’s a blip not a trend or that increased readings come from urbanization rather global temperature changes? Oooookay . . .

    As for evolution wiping out the epistemically weak: The stick in the water looks bent, and yet we live! Evolution doesn’t want our genes to achieve truth. Evolution wants our genes to have differential reproductive success.

  34. You might want to go back and read the entire posting and not just pull things convenient to your argument. I said global warming is a fact, I didn’t say that any particular theory of WHY was a fact. Global warming is a fact because we have seen an upward trend based on temperature readings. Even in nonurban areas.

    Bent sticks in water don’t kill you. Lions do. Be reasonable. And, we can explain why the stick appears bent. And, when we do things like learn to spear fish, we learn to adjust. But by all means, develop a theory that gravity doesn’t apply to you and take a jump off the grand canyon. Go ahead, do it. You won’t? Why not? It is because gravity is a fact? Regardless of what theory of gravity you may ascribe to?

  35. Gheez, Troy. The “fact” of global warming is *constructed* out of temperature readings, tree rings, and so on. I think it’s probably true probably anthropogenetic too BTW, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the apparent fact of global warming is not beyond “any room at all for disagreement.” Maybe the thermometers are in the wrong places. Maybe our *theory* connecting tree rings to temperature is mistaken. And so on.

    As for natural selection, well it is just not that fine a filter, Troy. I’m sure you remember the old joke about the two guys running from a bear. “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun *you*!” Natural selection grades on a curve. Thus, it just ain’t true that any error in our naive perceptions would be a death sentence. Indeed, why do we have science, but to correct our naive ideas? The existence of science pretty much proves that natural selection did a rather mediocre job of purging false ideas from our heads.

  36. Your first objection strikes me as objecting that there is no such thing as temperature because one cannot measure the temperature of a single atom. Temperature is an emergent property of the actions of a given set of atoms.

    And we don’t need tree rings, etc. for evidence of warming. We need thermometer readings over the past several decades showing an upward trend of highs and lows across the globe in a broad-based pattern. Which we have. One can take out urban readings and still see the trend (though less steep, since urban areas are heat islands). Except just to be contrary in forums such as this, nobody would deny the existence of global warming based on temperature readings. Why people deny are the theories of what is causing that warming, or what the effects of that warming will be, or what, if anything, anyone should try to do about it. But real human beings acting in the real world would all agree, if presented with the data and no theory to interpret it, that there is warming, based on the thermometer readings. People trying to gain points in intellectual forums by being absurd don’t count.

    And, no, natural selection isn’t that fine a filter. It’s a spontaneous order and, as such, a bit on the sloppy side. It doesn’t have to correct for all our naive ideas — as the stick example pointed out. But those that will kill us were corrected for in rather severe ways. Thus, it is important that organisms do get things mostly right. As I also point out, though, when it comes to something like water distortion, we can and do learn to correct for it right away. We make the correction because it is a fact that the water distorts where the fish are we want to spear. Don’t correct for that fact, and you won’t get fish — and that’s a fact, too.

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