Facing the Facts

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” —Mark Twain

If I am going to get you to say to me, “I understand, yes, I agree with you,” I will need to use fact instead of passing off an opinion, belief, judgment or inference as if it were fact. A claim’s support, the specific details, must consist of facts or clearly qualified opinions, judgments or inferences. Opinions, judgments and inferences are statements about unsettled issues and should never be stated as if they were valid conclusions or absolute truth (emotion also plays a role in persuasion, and I’ll discuss that in another post).

A fact is a verifiable statement, an accurate report of events, or accurate comments about persons, objects or ideas. It is something everyone will agree to. A simple test is to  put the words “We know that…” in front of the claim. The following sentences are statements of fact. All are verifiable.

1. Yesterday, a car wreck occurred on Interstate 95 about three miles west of town.

This statement is easily verifiable by the police or the newspaper. Anyone will accept the validity of either source.

2. The Weather Service reported that three inches of rain fell on Indianapolis yesterday.

Here the question is not whether three inches of rain fell but whether the Weather Service reported it. Again, this fact can be easily checked in the newspaper or the Weather Service web site.

3. There are sidewalks on both sides of the boulevard.

Anyone who doubts this statement can easily check it by looking at the boulevard. Probably, no one would bother to question it.

4. In 1974, Florida had a population of 12,017,000. 

Easily checked by the government census reports or encyclopedias.

5. Gerry Rogers told me he went for a ride in a UFO.

Here again the question is not whether Gerry went for a ride in a UFO but whether he told me so. As long as Gerry will admit that he told me, the statement is verifiable. If he will not, the question must be resolved by the reputation and reliability of the two people involved.

Notice we are not focusing here on the accuracy of the claims themselves but instead on the format in which an idea is expressed. One of the above statements may be incorrect; but the statement itself is a statement of fact (it just happens to be a statement of fact that is false). False information can and does appear in such statements which is why we need independent verification. If a statement is trying to assert a positive claim to know something, a “we know that…,” then it is a statement of fact (whether it’s a correct statement is a different issue). It is important to be able to identify the different kinds of statements because that helps us understand the issue at hand and the point of view of the person we’re trying to communicate with.

A statement that is a statement of fact will be a statement that is independently verifiable. Other kinds of statements are not. False statements, opinion statements, value judgments, assumption statements, metaphysical claims, hypothetical claims, prediction statements, all will be difficult or impossible to verify. Facts need to be present to support these kinds of claims if the statements are to be taken seriously as knowledge.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.