What are some outdated scientific facts

Facts in science
About facts and their educated despisers

Let us start with a few platitudes that just a few years ago would hardly have provoked any contradiction: Providing knowledge of facts is part of the core business of science. Even the step of collecting data with the help of observations or measurements is nothing more than establishing facts. For example, has the global average temperature increased since the beginning of industrialization? After evaluating countless series of measurements, it is clear: Yes, it is like that. The corresponding statement is true, it expresses a fact. And facts exist regardless of what we believe about them.

Philosophers add some conceptual clarifications to these platitudes: facts are that in the world that correspond to our true statements. There are therefore no false facts and no true ones either. What can be true or false are statements of fact. The fact that facts are something "in the world" does not mean that they are about things that can be seen and touched. Facts belong to those objects that are called "abstract objects" in philosophical ontology because they are not material and have no spatial extension. I only emphasized that facts are something "in the world" in order to make it clear that, unlike sentences, they are not linguistic. Facts are not what we say something with, but something we say something about. This difference becomes important at the latest when slogans such as "All facts are constructions" are thrown into the debate.

"What sets science apart is its special care, its systematic approach and the greater reliability of its results."

Science is not alone in the business of establishing fact. Journalists, detectives and meter readers are also involved. What sets science apart is its special care, its systematic approach and the greater reliability of its results. Science has to do with facts, the investigation of which requires a special effort. The reading of an electricity meter can be determined by simply looking, but this does not apply to the cause of a volcanic eruption or the meaning of an old grave inscription.

Post factual communication and "alternative facts"

Some readers may have become restless by now. In addition to bad reasons, aren't there also some good reasons why the reference to facts is often viewed with skepticism today? First to the bad reasons: It is no secret that this skepticism is mainly due to developments outside of science, such as the emergence of a "post-factual" political style that levels the difference between facts and opinions and is ignorant of scientific expertise. Why bother about facts when you can get away with lies and "alternative facts"?

As is well known, the expression "alternative facts" goes back to a statement by Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway, who defended Trump's spokesman at the time against the accusation of lies: "Sean Spicer didn’t lie. He provided alternative facts". The statement provoked outrage and ridicule. Soon T-shirts appeared with the words "Sorry, alternative facts are just lies". The example is instructive because Spicer's statement "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period" was clearly an assertion of fact. And the audience had a sense that Conway's rhetorical maneuver was designed to distort the sense of an important phrase. The jury, which chose the expression "alternative facts" as the bad word of the year, cited the reason that it was "the disguising and misleading expression for the attempt to make false claims socially acceptable as a legitimate means of public debate". If Conway had in mind to establish a "pluralistic" understanding of "fact" that would allow the factual situation to be adapted to one's own interests, this attempt failed.

"You have to know facts before you can twist them." Mark Twain

Mark Twain once aptly said: "You have to know facts before you can twist them." The speech acts of lying and deceiving are very demanding. The liar wants to make others believe something that he himself does not believe to be true. He wants to deceive them about facts he is not deceiving himself about and also relies on the others not expecting to be deceived. So he is abusing the trust placed in him. This is good news: as long as lies and deception are successful, this communication behavior is parasitic compared to the standard case, namely to honestly inform about what is the case or what you believe yourself.

Insincere communication, in and of itself, cannot harm the facts. The same goes for wishful thinking. "Facts are stubborn things," remarked John Adams, the Second President of the United States. Facts are stubborn, they do not conform to our wishes. Let us therefore set aside the topics of lies, deception and wishful thinking and turn to the question of what the educated people among their despisers accuse the facts of.

Is the irrefutable fact only?

It is not uncommon for the provisional nature of scientific knowledge to be viewed as a challenge to the notion that science can discover facts. Modern natural science has a "fallibilistic" understanding of itself: It regards the search for scientific knowledge as a fundamentally fallible undertaking. Humans are fallible beings and scientists are no exception. Nobody can make sure on their own that what they believe to be true is actually true. According to its concept, science strives for knowledge, but it always has to reckon with errors and later revisions. The history of science offers rich illustrative material for this.

"Humans are fallible beings and scientists are no exception."

The fallibility of science, however, does not change its claim to provide factual knowledge. Let us consider some revisions in the history of science, for example about the age of the earth, the existence of an etheric substance in space or the cause of gastric ulcers. These revisions did not consist in the fact that what was true became false as a result of new discoveries, but rather that what was mistakenly believed to be true was proven to be false. Or more cautious, since today's scientists are fallible too: that something that was previously believed to be true is now considered to be false - until this view may have to be corrected at some point.

What changes when an error is corrected - temporarily - are not facts, but human beliefs: something that was previously taken for a fact turns out to be a false assumption of facts. So science can be wrong about whether something is a fact. Clinging to the claim to find out the truth is precisely what is needed to take account of the fallibility of science. The concepts of fact, truth and objectivity have an essentially negative function in science, as is often overlooked: Truth is not what we are sure to find when we practice science according to all the rules of the art, but what we do can miss, although we practice science according to all the rules of the art.

What did Ramses II die of?

Another challenge comes from the cultural and social sciences. There the educated among those who despise facts bring constructivist views into the field. According to the "radical constructivism" developed in the 1970s, reality is a construction of our brain. Later "social constructivist" theories were added, which were initially limited to the thesis of the constructive character of social phenomena and were later generalized: All facts are social constructions. The philosophical epistemology has remained largely unaffected by these views and is accused from the constructivist camp of "naive realism".

When French scientists, after examining the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II, determined that Ramses probably died of tuberculosis, the sociologist of science Bruno Latour contradicted this diagnosis: How could Ramses have died of a pathogen that was only discovered by Robert Koch in 1882? Mycobacterium tuberculosis "did not really exist" before appropriate detection methods were developed. The claim that Ramses died of tuberculosis is no less anachronistic than the claim that he died in machine gun fire.

The comparison is, with all due respect, nonsense. There were no machine guns in the time of the pharaohs, while the tuberculosis pathogen was simply not yet discovered. Now the dispute between a realistic and a constructivist understanding of facts is also conducted as one about whether facts are discovered or invented. But if Robert Koch had not discovered the causative agent of a disease that was untreatable at the time, but invented it, wouldn't solitary confinement with bread and water have been recommended instead of the Nobel Prize?

"Facts are stubborn things and so are diseases."

It is undisputed that Ramses' personal doctors could not diagnose his disease as tuberculosis. It does not follow from this that Ramses could not have been suffering from tuberculosis. The reason for this is simple: Neither the existence of the bacterium nor its distribution in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs nor its work in the body of Ramses depend on what people knew about it. Facts are stubborn things, and so are diseases. One can also die from undiagnosed diseases. The tuberculosis pathogen "doesn't even care" about the level of our medical knowledge.

The slogan "facts are constructed" may have a small true core, but it is misleadingly expressed by the slogan and is also not easy to work out. "Construction" can be used to describe the result of a constructive activity, but also the activity itself. A reinforced concrete bridge is an artifact, it does not come into being by itself. But if it has been designed and built, then it is no less real than the Matterhorn or a Nile crocodile, which came into the world without human intervention. The fact that the bridge is constructed relates solely to the question of how it was created. Its existence is not affected by the fact that it would not exist without human intervention.

Hasn't naive realism been overcome since Kant?

Facts are now referred to as "constructed" in a different sense than buildings, because construction here is not a physical activity, but a spiritual one. From the constructivist side it is argued that facts are not "just there", as naive realism assumes, but are due to a constructive activity of the human mind. Educated constructivists refer to the epistemological theory of Immanuel Kant, according to which our senses are affected by "raw material" that is brought by the mind under forms of perception and concepts. Without the synthesis and constitutional work of the mind, we would not have any experience of objects, but would at best register information, as digital cameras do. The same optical information may arrive on the image sensor of a camera as on the retina of a person, but cameras are not subjects of experience.