Facts and Opinions

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. – Daniel Patrick Moynihan(1)

While I fully appreciate the sentiment of the above quote and its attempts to cudgel ignorance, I also worry that some of the message is insidiously counter-productive (more provocatively it also raises the question of whether American attitudes towards religious freedom rather than reason imply that the opposite is actually true). Lurking within the quote is the suggestion that statements are either facts or opinions and the objective veracity of any statement is a property of that category. This tends to produce perverse polarization of largely objective but somewhat unresolved issues such as climate change.

A closely related notion is that of “scientific fact”. Within the context of science “fact” does not carry the designation of immutable truth present in common interpretation(2), but to more clearly express the distinctions herein “fact” will be used for statements which less ambiguously possess that attribute. While science is certainly full of facts, the phrase “scientific fact” is often used for assertions which transcend (but are likely supported by) facts. A less leading term for such assertions which are accepted by the scientific community is settled science. The difference may seem subtle but is significant. The message of “scientific fact” is one of irrefutability. This is a stance of dogma which is diamterically opposed to that of science. Science is perhaps unfortunately often considered a source of answers but probably more than anything else science is a framework for questions and skepticism: it is not a message of “listen to me” but rather “bring it!” It’s so itching for a fight that it goes on to say “listen…I may have a bunch of reasons to believe this but if you can give me one, just one, measly reproducible counterexample you can have the win.”

Science therefore provides a fairly clear context for the large middle ground between fact and opinion. This is the space in which most of our knowledge lies: hypotheses and theories composed on top of falsifiable empiricism. In this space you can collect facts and conjecture based on those facts but the merit of those assertions is contingent upon the evidence supporting them. Everyone is certainly entitled to make claims, but they are only worth as much as they are able to be substantiated. This is the foundation of rational beliefs and discourse which fosters our collective understanding of the world.

Maybe that’s just my opinion, but it’s also a roadmap for how to change it since I don’t feel entitled to believing things that are disproven.

1.
Daniel patrick moynihan - wikiquote [online]. 4 March 2022. Available from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Daniel_Patrick_Moynihan
2.
Definitions of fact, theory, and law in scientific work | national center for science education [online]. 6 March 2022. Available from: https://ncse.ngo/definitions-fact-theory-and-law-scientific-work