Tim Minchin’s Storm

While I’m working on charting various datums for some upcoming posts (choosing colors is a weakness of mine and is eating my time) – my hope is this video will satisfy your craving, by introducing you to the raving of Tim Minchin’s Storm – in video form.

On Facts vs. Opinions

And why I’m not going to bother arguing them with you…

It seems that I find my self in many discussions throughout the day that resolve themselves to merely be a difference of opinion. I don’t like arguing opinions, it is useless. You can’t argue whether an opinion is right or wrong – opinions just are. If I say, “I think dirt tastes good,” you can’t really argue with that – it is what it is – mainly, a fact about an opinion. But, most people don’t word things that well. A person usually just says, “dirt tastes good,” while they wipe brown bits of it from their lips. Then the so-called “normal” person they are talking to says, “no it doesn’t” and you have a messy, dirty argument on your hands.

The problem is, while “dirt tastes good” sounds like a fact, it isn’t. It is an opinion pretending to be a fact, which is rather rude of it, I think. There is no point in trying to convince someone that they don’t like dirt. That is an argument you can’t win – and an argument you can’t win is one worth not having.

So if you can’t argue about opinions, can you argue about facts? Not really. Something is either a fact or it isn’t. You could argue that the thing someone is claiming as fact isn’t, but you’d better have proof.

Anyway, we’d better define what I mean by “fact.” A fact is at least two of these:

  1. Verifiable
  2. Testable
  3. Consensus-able

Verifiable

The first criteria I have for facts is that I can verify them. What this means, is that I have some way of getting at the same resource you used to come up with your fact – or a better resource. Was George Washington the first U.S. president? There are many places where I can verify that, so we call it a fact. It may be a “soft” fact, since I can’t go back in time and see it for myself, but a fact it remains – due to consensus. I’ll get to that in a second…

Testable

Another good criteria for facts is that they are testable. This works better for “hard” facts – things I can see with my own eyes. For instance, you say “red and blue make green” and I can get some paint and try it out. A point about tests – a good test will always be able to falsify a claim. You want a test to have zero false-positives, otherwise they are basically useless for determining facts.

Consensus-able

Consensus is an oddball. Basically, it is a group of people sharing the opinion that a fact is a fact. This is why you can’t have consensus by itself, it relies on one of the other corners of the “fact triangle” to make a fact. Lot’s of people share the same opinion, like when Prop 8 was voted down in California – but that doesn’t mean it is a fact that homosexual marriage is a bad thing, just a fact that many people held that opinion.

The other thing to keep in mind, when looking for consensus, is the group of people forming the consensus. In order for something to be deemed a fact, you want consensus with the people who know about it. Just take a look at the ridiculous “evolution debate.” Among biologists, people who study life, there is very good consensus on evolution. Why? They are the ones doing the studies. They know what they are looking at, they have developed intimate knowledge of how biological systems work. To them, it becomes almost taken for granted that evolution is real – and I say almost, because of the second group of people.

Outside of the mainstream biological community there are many people who deny evolution is real. The people on this side have also formed a consensus – creationism – that is directly opposite to that of the other group. So, you have creationism going head to head against evolution – and it would be really confusing, except the creationists really only have one leg to stand on.

See, creationists have managed to form a consensus, and have gone as far to try and pass off their opinion as fact. And it really is only an opinion, which is why this makes such a great example. Let’s tear down creationism…

First, is it verifiable? You could say that most creationists will point to the bible as their verification. But, the problem with the bible is it doesn’t lay out the details of creation, or how it worked – it basically just says, “God did it” and leaves it at that. Since you can’t just ask God to show you what he did – and no, I don’t count praying and receiving a “feeling” as the same thing – then you can’t really call it verifiable.

Well then, is it testable? Sort of. There really isn’t a way to set up a test to see if things were (at least, not that I know of) spontaneously created, but you can test to see if it still happens. In short, it doesn’t. Turns out, when you watch a species closely, for long enough, you can see it evolve.

The only thing that creationism has is consensus, which simply isn’t enough.

Arguments

I’ve said that you shouldn’t argue facts, because there really isn’t anything to argue about. You also shouldn’t argue opinions, because they are specifically not factual. There is no way to prove an opinion true or false, because that isn’t the nature of opinion.

Then, when is it worth your time to argue something? When someone is purposely trying to cast an opinion as a fact, or calling a fact just opinion. This is where the real argument lies. You have to be careful, though, to make sure you are on the right side of it – which means learning how to tell your facts and opinions apart. You also need to watch out for lazy speakers who phrase something like a fact, but really mean it as opinion. “Dirt tastes good” is never a good time to get into an argument. Other than some good-hearted mocking, it is best to leave things like that alone.