Is That a Fact?

The word Fact comes from the Latin word factum,  neuter past participle of facere or ‘do’. It’s original intent was as ‘an act’ or ‘action’, particularly of evil origin, which was later used to define ‘a crime’. It survives in this old form in the still modern phrase “before or after the fact”. This old meaning lapsed in the 16th century as the word was redefined to mean “known truth”.

The current dictionary meaning of ‘Fact’ is something known to be true. The legal definition is “an actual or alleged event or circumstance”, which is a bit looser, and relies on evidence to tell the difference between “actual” and “alleged”.

We come into a sticky situation with the words “known” and “true”, mostly due to evidence and change.

For something to be known, someone must know it. I have plenty of experiences that I have shared with others, and I have others that I have not. As such, there are some things known by me that are not known by others. If I relay an experience that occurred when I was out walking as a child, I am relaying a known something from my perspective that is unknown by any other. Does that make it known? Does that make it unknown? Or perhaps a-known?

In my shared experiences with someone else, my perception of the experience may not match that of the other person who shared it with me. I may make a statement about what I know of the event that is denied by the other person. As such, what is known about this event? Is my knowledge better than another’s? Or worse?

To negate this problem, the principles of science require multiple measurements by multiple people in circumstances where another can replicate the outcomes if they meet all of the pre-conditions. I can claim that I can telelport from one location to another and that I have done so many times. Perhaps I can, but if I can’t demonstrate it to another, my accounting of it has no real meaning, as far as a scientific perspective is concerned. It might impress my friends with my story, but it will probably disturb my therapist.

If I demonstrate it to a friend, and they concur with my statements to others, will another be able to trust the two of us? The easiest way to satisfy the test is to demonstrate it. If I can teleport on demand to any reasonable people that request it (this isn’t entertainment, it’s science! – but I should be able to demonstrate it to anyone), then the knowledge of my teleportation becomes scientifically relevant, it becomes known. (How is another matter entirely!)

Truth is another problem. There are no fixed things in this universe. We would love for there to be, but there isn’t. All of our measurements of everything are taken with an error margin and an acceptance that new evidence will supersede the previous knowledge.

Take a measuring stick and place it against an object. The closest you can definitely state the object is to a measurement is half a unit of the smallest notch of your measuring stick. So if the object I am measuring comes to 2 cm and I have mm accuracy, then the object is actually 2 cm +/- 0.5 mm (this varies depending on the measurement and the equipment). It is our confidence with the equipment we have to measure. Another way to consider this is imagine you are trying to measure Pi. I have a stick that is exactly Pi cm long. I try to measure it with my measuring stick and I will get 3.14 cm, +/- 0.5 mm, or 0.005 cm. I can’t get any closer to the number Pi with that stick, because it isn’t any more accurate than that. This doesn’t mean that pi is 3.14 cm, or 3.135 cm, or 3.145. It means it is between 3.135 cm and 3.145 cm, but not lower 3.135 cm and not greater than 3.145 cm. A more accurate method of measuring will generate a more accurate result.

As I grew up, it was theorised that a planet may revolve around a star somewhere in this universe, hopefully this galaxy, that had an Earth like planet. We knew of only one planet that fit the bill, and I was born on it, and that was the truth. Maybe there was another – but we had no evidence of it, just a possibility, so there was no truth to a statement such as “an Earth like planet orbits around another star” – because we had no evidence it did, or that it could. A few years ago it was announced that exo-planets had both been detected in space and also in orbit around other stars. The possibility of an Earth like planet increased, although none had been found.  After all, we now had evidence, not just a hypothesis, of a planet around another star! There was still no truth to the statement “an Earlth like planet orbits around another star”. It was just a matter of time, we hoped, to find an Earth like planet.

Today I read an article that said we have found Gliese 832 C, a super Earth and the current best candidate as “Earth like planet” in a habitable zone around the star Gliese, only 16 light years away. It’s orbit is measured in 36 Earth days – that’s it’s year vs ours of 365 Earth days. Today this is the new truth. That is, new evidence has superseded the old truth of “we know of no Earth Like planet orbiting another star” with “we know of an Earth like planet orbiting around another star”. This is the best candidate for life on another planet around another star and it is measured in several ways. The planet is bigger than Earth, but not too much. It is closer to it’s star (a red dwarf), but well within the habitable region of energy from the star (closer because it is a red dwarf). While there are two other contenders for the “best”, Gliese 832 C wins because it is the closest planet we have found.

If we were to find another planet that was more Earth like only slightly further out, it may defeat our measure of “best”, especially if we detect intelligent life on it. This is the nature of truth. It changes as we learn more. And what we learn is based on what we know.

Coming back to facts. A fact is something that we “know” to be “true”. Know requires many people knowing about it for it to become knowledge, and knowing about it means being able to verify that it is true as far as we can test, but allows for new evidence to change what is true.

The more we know, the more facts become wrong. The opposite of a fact is not fiction. That’s just a library convention and implies an intent to deceive. Tells you a lot about librarians, doesn’t it. Or is that more authors? Superseded information has no intent (we hope) to deceive.

So what is unchangeable Truth (note the capital T)? Some believe they find it in a god, or a certainty that they have about something, such as no humans ever having reached the Moon. There are two conflict of Truth versus truth.

The first has to do with “truth is verifiable”. You can run a test, that is anyone can run a test, and get the same or very similar result. That gives us the truth. As I grew up, no matter who looked through the telescopes, no one saw a planet around a star other than ours.

The second has to do with the variable nature of truth. That is, truth can be superseded with a newer truth. Anyone that looks at the data can verify the calculations and the observations and demonstrate that Gliese 832c is indeed an Earth like planet approximately 16 light years away. This is a new truth. This doesn’t make the old truth a deception, it just makes it wrong, however at the time it was the best truth we had.

Gods cannot be verified by tests. Nor can a certainty about something, such as the idea that man has not been on the Moon. Both of these types of Truth require belief instead of evidence. After all, no new evidence will allow for a believer of these Truths to adjust their idea of what is real and reject their Truth. As such Truth is not truth.

Superseded facts are not necessarily wrong either. If I give you a the fact that this object is 3.14 +/- 0.005 cm in length, then measure it with a better tool and discover that it is 3.14156 +/- 0.00005 cm, then my first measurement, while inaccurate, is not really wrong. If my more accurate measurement were to give me 6.282 +/- 0.0005 cm, then I would certainly consider my first measurement as wrong while my new measurement is right (so long as the new measurement isn’t the wrong one… and science is basically all about checking which measurement is the right and the wrong one!). In the first now inaccurate measurement of 3.14 vs 3.14156 (let us call this “A”), the ratio is minimal. In the second one 3.14 vs 6.282 (let us call this “B”), the ratio is huge. A is supporting previous evidence with a greater degree of fidelity, while B is conflicting with previous evidence – one of them is clearly wrong.

In re-measurement A, to suggest that 3.14 was wrong may be to commit a logical fallacy. That is to ignore the point of the discussion because a single point is not accurate enough. To assert the same point if B was our second measurement would be fair enough because the ratio is way out.

To summarise, a fact is something that is accurate at the time of writing or stating. It is accurate because it is a knowledge based on evidence and tests. It can be updated as new evidence and tests are created and used. An old fact should be out by a significant ratio to be considered out right wrong, rather than less accurate.


I think I’m starting to develop Pensionism. That is, I begin to fear those elderly people who have a particular type of pension from the government.

To explain it a little. There are three primary kinds of pension in Australia – the standard aged pension, disability support pension and veterans pension.  I meet nice and rotten examples of all three, so that certainly isn’t my criteria for discrimination. Many feel that they deserve more special treatment than everyone else.

The ones who get me are the veteran pensions. Not because I disagree with war, but because frequently the obnoxious members of that particular group wave their pension as the reason why they should get special treatment.

As a result of this classical conditioning, I begin to wince when I see someone come in with a veterans pension even before they demonstrate that they are reasonable, or that they are obnoxious and not using their pension as an excuse. (Classical conditioning – consider Pavlov’s thought experiment where he fed a dog and rang a bell. The dog would salivate for the food, but when he rang the bell on its own, the dog would salivate without food. Here the veterans pension is becoming the bell.)

I think this is sad.

Those who wave their pension status around as an excuse for special treatment are no better or worse than any of the others who want special treatment, they have just linked their behaviour to a specific discernible difference – the bell here is the veterans pension – and thus I react even if the obnoxious behaviour is not present.

I wonder if other forms of discrimination are formed this way. While my reaction is to cringe, the action I choose is to wait until I meet the person before cringing.


I suspect this topic will be contentious.

Around about the year 2000 I recognised that I was struggling through extreme moods. These extremes would last between a few days to ten and were separated by several weeks of minimal moods. It was during this year that I reviewed my life to find that this was not a recent phenomena, it had just got to a level that was interfering with my life enough to do something about it.

The first thing I tried to do was to map it. When did these peaks occur and what could I correlate it to? I was working on the premise of “know thyself”. I figured that if I knew more about these moods, I could start to address the critical factors that affect me. I had ruled out medication at this point in time as a solution.

I found a regular pattern to my moods. They tended to peak when the moon was full. The bad ones where in the month when mercury was in retrograde (or more to the point, the nearest full moon). There may have been some confirmation bias in this or self-fulfilling-prophecy, but I took quite a bit of care to minimise the likelihood of these. This correlation allowed me to plan ahead and avoid putting into my calendar critical things, like applying for jobs, or caring for people. Initially all I could do was manage the symptoms and hold on, knowing it would end in time and life would return to “normal”.

I came up with many hypothesise for my observed correlation. Perhaps it was the light of the moon reflecting on the atmosphere changing the ionic charge of the world, or the combination of the alignment of the sun/earth/moon gravity, or some kind of light sensitivity I had and so on. I thought up many excellent, seemingly reasonable explanations on how the correlation could be a causal factor. Under examination, they all failed. Especially trying to figure out mercury gong into retrograde (where it seems to go backwards in the sky to it’s usual path of travel due to orbital mechanics and point of reference). Perhaps my moods were causing the moon’s phase cycle and mercury going into retrograde? Not likely either.

It was tempting to discard the correlation because of this in ability to find a causal link, yet it was a powerful predictive tool. It let me time things for when I was less than able to cope. There were times when I failed in my timing (because I don’t control everyone else) and had to suffer through my extreme mood while trying to perform some kind of task. It was hard. Discarding this useful tool seemed idiotic.

Similarly trying to find a causal link seemed foolish too, although that didn’t stop me trying. After all, if I could figure out the cause, I could address that cause instead of managing symptoms. I never did figure out “the cause”. Instead, like most things in life, it was far more complicated than that. I addressed several stressors (I’ve written about that in the past) and the combined effect of these strategies was to mitigate my extremes of emotion giving me a far more regular mood pattern (still more passionate than most it seems, but not out of control). I no longer needed to predict vulnerable times, as I had learned not to be vulnerable.

Time for an analogy, and time seems like a smart thing to use. I get hungry several times a day. I can find a pattern to that hunger and find something that I can use to predict my hunger. It seems when my phone’s clock (lets just call it the clock, okay?) indicates it’s between 7-8 in the morning, I tend to get hungry. Sometimes it’s a bit later, sometimes a bit sooner. Frequently between 12 and 1 in the afternoon I get hungry again. Sometimes that goes as late as 2-30, but it is usually around 12. I get a small hunger around 3-4, but that isn’t always universal. I also become quite hungry around 6-7, and again this can range up to 8-9. The correlation isn’t tight, but it is a great predictive tool. I can try to figure out a causal link between the two, such as electronic emanations, light levels and so forth , but that will all prove faulty upon examination. Perhaps my hunger is changing the time on the clock? Clearly not, there are other clocks beyond my range and many that existed before I was born and my hunger doesn’t seem to shift the time that appears on my clock. Does that mean I should discard my clock simply because I can’t find a causal link? That seems foolish. I don’t understand the mechanism, but as a predictive tool, the clock is very useful for planing my activities such that I can address my hunger.

Just recently I experienced one of those extreme moods. I recognised it for what it was – a mood with no source. Nothing happened to directly trigger the mood I was in (such as a nasty confrontation, winning a million dollars, a death etc), and the basic emotion was consistent for several days. This had all the indicators of being one of my old extreme moods. Once recognised I knew what to do about it – I minimised my responsibility to others, put my work mask on, deferred critical tasks, prioritised things ‘things that must be done’, and held on until it passed. It’s better, but not gone yet.

It’s been several years since I’ve had one this bad. I can come up with lots of hypothesise to explain why this one was bad, but really, who knows? It disturbs me that I am still prone to these. Kind of like an ex-alcoholic who has been drinking responsibly for years waking up after a drunken night out. There is a level of disgust at what I have gone through again and dismay that it may never go away.

One of my friends who studies and works in occult fields pointed out to me that this Friday is a full moon. Oh, and by the way, mercury is in retrograde. Well, gee. It’s been years since I have felt the need to track the phase of the moon, and I can never remember when Mercury is going to be in retrograde (it happens 3-4 times a year), so clearly this wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. There have been many times that Mercury went into retrograde that did not prompt a significant extreme mood (at least, not extreme enough for me to check), so the correlation is not rigid.

To some extent I’m a bit annoyed that this correlation still works. I am also relieved to note that it still works – I got that feeling of “oh, no wonder” when I was told about the astrological/astronomical phenomena. Does this mean that the moon and Mercury did this to me? I have no evidence of that. Nor do I have evidence that it didn’t. So long as I accept that it is just a correlation, I can use it as a tool.

I should also be careful not to turn it into a false correlation too. How many times has my mood been out of whack, that I dismissed because the moon was not full, or Mercury was not in retrograde? How many times was the moon full and I didn’t have a strong mood? We humans find patterns all the time, whether they exist or not. It is a part of being human.

Tim Minchin has a line in one of his songs “Storm” – ‘Do you know what we call alternate medicine that works? … Medicine’. From this, do you know what we call magic that works? Science. What this misses though, is the transition stage where scientists are looking at the alternate medicine that works to find out how it works such that they can make it more reliable, and the same transition stage where a series of events that are considered reliable magic are examined and the causal links are teased out and incorporated into the fields of science. So many previously considered fields of magic have been systematically investigated, understood, and are now labelled science. So many fields of magic have been shown to be faulty. There are still many more to be investigated.

It is an error to dismiss the consistent result because the mechanism is unknown or the current explanation is faulty. I covered this in the post Logical Fallacy Fallacy. It is an error to attack the person who tries to explain how they think something works just because it doesn’t line up with what you know. That was also covered in the post Logical Fallacy – Ad Hominem. It is an error to assume the correlation is causal – covered in the post Logical Fallacy – Mistaking Correlation with Causation.

So where does that leave us? Be cautiously open minded, be polite, be careful of your judgements and remember, we while we don’t know everything, what we have actually tested is fairly accurate.Lunacy


Villainy – it’s an interesting topic.

As a social worker, I need to make some decisions that are not necessarily well received by those whom those decisions affect. I also make many decisions that are well received – so it isn’t all bad. My hope is that more people bless my name than curse it. Reflecting on this prompted me to think – at what point do I turn into a villain? After all, don’t many villains justify their ‘evil’ acts by doing the best thing despite the will of the people? Isn’t that what I do?

You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin, this proverb is attempting to justify the cost of the eggs to make a good ending, the omelette. Many of my clients lack the insight, motivation and or intellect to make intelligent choices. Many lack relevant support and resources to manage their preferred outcome. At these times I need to step in and make recommendations, enforce rules of the organisation (policies, program guidelines and legislature). This may take the form of counselling, educating and or referring to relevant government bodies.

Many times families of the clients welcome the necessary intervention, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the client is grateful that someone has stepped in, often they aren’t. On average though, most of the clients and families that I work with are happy with the result that our facility has supported them achieving.

The times when both the client and the family are angry with me prompts me to review the actions that I have taken. Did I really do what was best? Did I really follow the rules and did I need to? Was there another way? Frequently my result is that for the definition of ‘best’ within the program and my conscience, for the definition of the rules as I know them, I did the right thing and there was no other, better way.

Best is a strange word. I have had a client, who lacked competence due to memory and lack of insight, who had five children all trying to do the ‘best’ thing for their parent. Each had a different but reasonable idea of what ‘best’ looked like. Each child’s view was incompatible with at least half the other children. Who is to define what the ‘best’ thing was for their parent? Who am I to decide for them? To protect ourselves from this, we make a decision as a team to ensure that we have checks and balances in place and that all decisions are team decisions, each of us working within our consensus ethics, work place procedure, program guidelines and the law.

That all sounds fine and dandy. Usually it works really well, although I am sure that those who receive the more intrusive interventions on their hopes and aspirations are not happy with the role we play. What if we tinkered a little with some of these settings. Let us say that our personal ethics were a little more broad than they are, perhaps the work place procedure was written up by us to reflect these broader ethics, perhaps the program guidelines are self funded and also written by us and the law, while something we must comply with locally whenever convenient, is something we need to measure against the cost of achieving our goal. How villainous can we become?

Personal ethics are derived from a combination of genetics, culture and experience. While some would like to suggest they are sourced in religious doctrine, there have been more than enough religious people committing “sins” and crimes against common law ethics to combat this notion, and more than enough non religious (athiest) people demonstrating altruism and cooperation to dismiss the perceived requirement for a religious upbringing. Basically, the spectrum of ethics in people is broad regardless of your cultural upbringing and absence or presence of a belief system. Often the caring fields call to a more select group of the general population, mostly those whose ethics run strong in representing and assisting those who need help. A company is generally looking for individuals whose ethics lie more towards making money with minimal harm – where harm can be broadly defined. This can include allowing the breaking of eggs to make that omelette. A study of psychopathy in Chief Executive Officers (CEO’s) of companies has demonstrated that the CEO population has an inflated representation of people who score high on tests designed to identify psychopaths. Please note that psychopaths are not all out to kill you, in fact psychopaths just generally don’t care whether you live or die – there is generally no murder agenda. The perceived cost of killing you just because you are in their way – jail time, loss of social status, difficulty in finding future employment – keeps most psychopaths from seriously considering this solution to your inconvenience, despite what the media and common fear states. Additionally it is not just psychopaths that commit murder, whether as an immediate solution or a planned execution. The point to discussing psychopaths at this point is all about empathy and how it plays a part in personal ethics.

Choosing what to do with and or on behalf of another has a great deal to do with identifying with that person and imagining yourself in their situation. This is empathy. Most people have it to varying degrees, however as a general rule, psychopaths don’t. The emotions that psychopaths feel is a closed system. It is about only them, and sometimes psychopaths also experience a limited range of emotions. Rarely does a psychopath feel for someone else. This can create a very egocentric system for valuing everything. While psychopaths are aware that others can be hurt, can love, can feel happy and sad, it has no emotional reflection on them unless it helps or hinders their plans. Around about now, many people will be wondering if they are psychopaths. Looking at the way we think psychopaths work can be scary because we all share some of these traits. It is the abundance of these traits and the absence of others that can define you. Most people reading this will empathise with others, appreciate beauty beyond it’s acquisition value and love their family and friends. If that is you, you are most likely not a psychopath, even if there is an element of calculation in all of the things I just mentioned.

If a group of CEOs form a panel to promote a cause, what are the odds that the panel is only personned by psychopaths? Once they figure out that they are not being judged by the others from an empathy perspective, it is quite easy to see that they could subtly change all of the settings of the panel to be far more calculating for profit than for empathic driven ethical good.

Laws are written by people. Not all people write the laws, just those who go into the correct branches of government. Mostly laws are well thought out comprehensive. Often they are very complex allowing for wriggle room via a good lawyer. Even so, laws are local phenomena, an international company or committee can transgress the laws of man. While people can be sent to jail, a corporation cannot, that entity can only be fined. Often enough the cost of complying with the law can be more expensive than paying the fines for breaking the law. A company may choose to not follow the law for economic reasons. The law may not be as binding as one thinks.

Another consideration is the person who has gone through some kind of experience that has fundamentally changed their value system. Values are a priority system for things, emotions and concepts. Consider this ‘joke’:

Sam asks Lee if they would sleep with them for one million dollars, after some consideration Lee agrees. Sam then asks about the same activity for one dollar. Lee exclaims that they aren’t a prostitute to which Sam states that was already established with the acceptance of one million dollars, now they are just haggling over price.

This humour is derived at finding the value of money verses sex and that many people do actually have a “price” or value hierarchy. Another example it the classic rail cart thought experiment.

You find yourself at a railway, there is a cart (weighing several tons) hurtling down the track and it is going to run over five people stranded on the track. You see that there is a fork in the track and a lever to switch the cart to that fork, but there is one person stuck on that track. You have insufficient time to help either party off the track, but you do have time to get to the lever and switch the track. Do you leave the cart to run over and kill the five people, or do you switch the lever and kill the one?”

This value experiment is to prompt people to consider if they would rather not act and by inaction cause five people to die, or to act and by acting be responsible for the one persons death. It can be followed up with this:

The five people are pensioners and the single person is a teenager – does this change your decisions?

How we value things depends on our upbringing, our society, genetics and our experience. People who have gone through traumatic events, such as rape, war and domestic violence can have an altered value system due to their trauma. Even within a single society the value system of each individual is on a fairly large spectrum.

So what happens if each of the people on the team have had traumatic experiences, or have a fairly alternate value system? The values and ethics held by each team member are now non-standard. It is likely that the goal they will attempt to achieve will be driven by their fears and dreams, which may be mundane or quite extraordinary. The method to which they wish to traverse to achieve these goals may be unacceptable by society. Or to use a nice cliché, these people may feel the ends justify the means, while Western society tends to promote that the ends do not justify the means.

How would each person on the team now plotting the commonly unthinkable plan justify their position? Probably they will say something like “we know best”;”the people this affects clearly are unable to make these decision themselves” because they are “not smart enough, not able to comprehend so lack insight” and so on; “it is the ethical thing to do”; “while there are people who will think this is wrong and will hate me for it, it is the thing I have to do”; and probably “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”. Basically the same reasons that I use to make my hard decisions.

So I console myself that I have empathy and a good value system – yet so would they – that I don’t have too much power to make significantly harmful mass decisions and that on average people think I am doing the right thing. My question is, what ratio of commonly regarded “good outcomes” to “bad outcomes” do I need to achieve to not be a villain? Or is that an example of a cold calculation?