David Leat examines the nature of ‘facts’ and considers why it is important that teachers and pupils really understand what a ‘fact’ is

One of the devices used by those who are under a bit of pressure in an argument or debate is to claim strong validity for some of the evidence that they have deployed. Some of the common phrases trundled out on TV and radio and of course in the pub include:

  • It’s a fact that…
  • … and that’s a fact.
  • You can’t argue with the facts.
  • The fact(s) of the case is…

You would think that we all know what a fact is. It is such a common part of everyday speech. Put it another way, it is a reasonable expectation that a school leaver of any age would have a good grasp of the concept of fact. Isn’t it? Sadly there are thousands of 16-year-olds (and 18-year-olds) with plenty of A and A* GCSEs who are fairly unclear about what a fact is. I would not want them to give a pat definition, but I would want them to be able to have a view and at least be interested in such a fundamental question.

To provide you with a bit of confidence, Wikipedia defines a fact as ‘something that is the case, something that actually exists or something that can be verified according to a standard evaluation.’

Fact or opinion?
One of the activities I have used with teachers in in-service training sessions is called ‘fact or opinion?’. I love using it, but it has never quite been the hit with teachers that I think it should be. The idea is simple. You give the audience (or class) some text. It does not even have to be very exciting text, but a useful guide to selecting text is that it represents different people’s views on an issue. The instructions are fairly straightforward. Use a highlighter to identify any segment that is a fact and use a different colour for anything that is an opinion. It is also entirely reasonable to say that this simple classification may be insufficient so the audience is welcome to invent whatever new categories they like.

Audiences have a go but rarely does this catch fire, whereas I think it is fantastic. My hypothesis is that it is frightening to many. It is bad enough to do it with peers but with students some teachers might reflect: ‘What on earth is the answer?’ – you can be very exposed by such a teaching adventure. We are in the territory of epistemology – the basis on which we know things. Virtually all subjects have something to say about facts, directly or indirectly; they have their methods of inquiry, investigation, evaluation or verification. Science is grounded in positivist tradition in which hypotheses move from uncertainty and speculation, to a degree of certainty through experimentation, and perhaps on to universal truth, law or principle. Art, however, has a very different standard and method of evaluation, where ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Science purports to be objective and art basks in its subjectivity. My fear is that this fundamental understanding of how we know things and what facts and truth are just gets lost in the dense forest of subject facts.

A lot of colleagues will end up with a view that a fact is something that can be verified and there also tends to be a view that once something is proven as a fact, that it remains a fact for good. However, some of the more acute participants will often spot that what is often taken for a fact is later proven to be incorrect. In the middle ages it was a fact that the earth was flat. It was a fact that Berlin was the capital of Germany, then it wasn’t, and now it is again (a re-established fact). Circumstances can change, so facts can change. With deep discussion, it is not a long hop to realise that there are not that many solid facts. There are ideas, theories and propositions and they have degrees of probability of being true – if this is sounding like statistics it is because it is at the heart of inferential statistics. Most facts are provisional.

Reasonable and unreasonable
Another interesting category, which pupils in particular generate, is the notion of reasonable and unreasonable opinion. There are, according to many, some opinions that are perfectly reasonable; they may not be universally held, but they are tolerated. ‘Britain should be a republic’, ‘Excessive drinking is wrong’ and ‘We should have open borders’ would be held by most to be reasonable opinions. ‘Fat people should not get free healthcare’ and ‘The pensionable age should be raised to 75’ might be seen as unreasonable. But what determines which positions are seen as generally acceptable and others as offensive? This is another very good deep and philosophical question.

The legal system is of course closely bound to notions of facts and probability, which makes it a fertile area for making connections. In law there is a focus on the facts of the case, but rarely are those facts simple. They are backed or refuted by evidence; there are balances of probability to consider. The deliberations of some juries would probably benefit from a stronger handle on fact, probability and evidence.

A challenge
So my challenge is try asking some of your pupils what a fact is. I don’t mean in a Mastermind way but in a manner where they can think for a bit, and see what they come up with. Try it with your colleagues and ask them whether and how they teach about the nature of facts, knowledge, truth and evidence. You might want to give them some think time too. Do we do enough on such a fundamental issue with pupils?