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A fact is something that has really occurred or is actually the case. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability—that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience. Standard reference works are often used to check facts. Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experiments or other means).

Etymology and usage

The word fact derives from the Latin factum, and was first used in English with the same meaning: a thing done or performed, a meaning now obsolete.[1] The common usage of "something that has really occurred or is the case" dates from the middle of the sixteenth century.[2]

Fact is sometimes used synonymously with truth, as distinct from opinions, falsehoods, or matters of taste. This use is found in such phrases as, "It is a fact that the cup is blue" or "Matter of fact",[3] and "... not history, nor fact, but imagination." Filmmaker Werner Herzog distinguishes clearly between the two, claiming that "Fact creates norms, and truth illumination."[4]

Fact also indicates a matter under discussion deemed to be true or correct, such as to emphasize a point or prove a disputed issue; (e.g., "... the fact of the matter is ...").[5][6]

Alternatively, fact may also indicate an allegation or stipulation of something that may or may not be a true fact,[7] (e.g., "the author's facts are not trustworthy"). This alternate usage, although contested by some, has a long history in standard English.[8]

Fact may also indicate findings derived through a process of evaluation, including review of testimony, direct observation, or otherwise; as distinguishable from matters of inference or speculation.[9] This use is reflected in the terms "fact-find" and "fact-finder" (e.g., "set up a fact-finding commission").[10]

Facts may be checked by reason, experiment, personal experience, or may be argued from authority. Roger Bacon wrote "If in other sciences we should arrive at certainty without doubt and truth without error, it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics."[11]

Fact in philosophy

In philosophy, the concept fact is considered in epistemology and ontology. Questions of objectivity and truth are closely associated with questions of fact. A "fact" can be defined as something that is the case—that is, a state of affairs.[12][13]

Facts may be understood as information that makes a true sentence true.[14] Facts may also be understood as those things to which a true sentence refers. The statement "Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system" is about the fact Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system.[15]

Correspondence and the slingshot argument

Engel's version of the correspondence theory of truth explains that what makes a sentence true is that it corresponds to a fact.[16] This theory presupposes the existence of an objective world.

The Slingshot argument claims to show that all true statements stand for the same thing - the truth value true. If this argument holds, and facts are taken to be what true statements stand for, then we reach the counter-intuitive conclusion that there is only one fact - the truth.[17]

Compound facts

Any non-trivial true statement about reality is necessarily an abstraction composed of a complex of objects and properties or relations.[18] For example, the fact described by the true statement "Paris is the capital city of France" implies that there is such a place as Paris, there is such a place as France, there are such things as capital cities, as well as that France has a government, that the government of France has the power to define its capital city, and that the French government has chosen Paris to be the capital, that there is such a thing as a place or a government, and so on. The verifiable accuracy of all of these assertions, if facts themselves, may coincide to create the fact that Paris is the capital of France.

Difficulties arise, however, in attempting to identify the constituent parts of negative, modal, disjunctive, or moral facts.[19]

Fact–value distinction

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Moral philosophers since David Hume have debated whether values are objective, and thus factual. In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume pointed out there is no obvious way for a series of statements about what ought to be the case to be derived from a series of statements of what is the case. Those who insist there is a logical gulf between facts and values, such that it is fallacious to attempt to derive values from facts, include G. E. Moore, who called attempting to do so the naturalistic fallacy.

Factual–counterfactual distinction

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Factuality—what has occurred—can also be contrasted with counterfactuality: what might have occurred, but did not. A counterfactual conditional or subjunctive conditional is a conditional (or "if-then") statement indicating what would be the case if events had been other than they actually are. For example, "If Alexander had lived, his empire would have been greater than Rome." This contrasts with an indicative conditional, which indicates what is (in fact) the case if its antecedent is (in fact) true—for example, "If you drink this, it will make you well."

Such sentences are important to modal logic, especially since the development of possible world semantics.

Fact in science

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In science, a fact is a repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experimentation or other means), also called empirical evidence. Facts are central to building scientific theories. Various forms of observation and measurement lead to fundamental questions about the scientific method, and the scope and validity of scientific reasoning.

In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.[20] For example, it is a fact that the Sun is hot; it is an untestable theory that it will become so hot that it burns up the Earth someday.

Various scholars have offered significant refinements to this basic formulation. Scientists are supposed to be careful to distinguish between: 1) states of affairs in the external world and 2) assertions of fact that may be considered relevant in scientific analysis. The term is used in both senses in the philosophy of science.[21]

Scholars and clinical researchers in both the social and natural sciences have written about numerous questions and theories that arise in the attempt to clarify the fundamental nature of scientific fact.[22] Pertinent issues raised by this inquiry include:

  • the process by which "established fact" becomes recognized and accepted as such; this goes to the heart of the peer review and scientific consensus conundrums.[23]
  • whether and to what extent "fact" and "theoretic explanation" can be considered truly independent and separable from one another;[24][25]
  • to what extent "facts" are influenced by the mere act of observation;[25] and
  • to what extent factual conclusions are influenced by history and consensus, rather than a strictly systematic methodology.[26]

Consistent with the theory of confirmation holism, some scholars assert "fact" to be necessarily "theory-laden" to some degree. Thomas Kuhn points out that knowing what facts to measure, and how to measure them, requires the use of other theories. For example, the age of fossils is based on radiometric dating, which is justified by a spurious mathematical reasoning that radioactive decay follows a Poisson process rather than a Bernoulli process, and by rejecting an enormous amount of data that falsifies this claim. Similarly, Percy Williams Bridgman is credited with the methodological position known as operationalism, which asserts that all observations are not only influenced, but necessarily defined by the means and assumptions used to measure them.

Fact and the scientific method

Apart from the fundamental inquiry into the nature of scientific fact, there remain the practical and social considerations of how fact is investigated, established, and substantiated through the proper application of the scientific method.[27] Scientific facts are generally believed independent of the observer: no matter who performs a scientific experiment, all observers agree on the outcome.[28] In addition to these considerations, there are the social and institutional measures, such as peer review and accreditation, that are intended to promote factual accuracy (among other interests) in scientific study.[29]

One researcher described the place of facts in closed, institutionalized science as follows:[30]

In case the difference between evidence and medical evidence or the difference between facts and scientific facts eludes you, let me explain. If I have a headache or a fever, that’s not a fact except to me. If I tell a doctor about it, that’s what doctors call anecdotal evidence or testimonial. If the doctor takes my temperature and writes it down, the headache becomes medical evidence. If another doctor copies it, it becomes a scientific fact. Should I need proof that my fever was 101 last Tuesday and ask my doctor for my chart, it will not be given to me. That plain garden variety fact has now become a scientific fact. It’s only available to another doctor. If I complain the doctor won’t give me the scientific facts about my past condition, that’s anecdotal evidence again.

The fallacy is seen as "only available to another doctor", an appeal to an exclusive and authoritative arbiter of fact.

Fact in history

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A common rhetorical cliché states, "History is written by the winners." This phrase suggests but does not examine the use of facts in the writing of history.

E. H. Carr in his 1961 volume, What is History?, argues that the inherent biases from the gathering of facts makes the objective truth of any historical perspective idealistic and impossible. Facts are, "like fish in the Ocean," of which we may only happen to catch a few, only an indication of what is below the surface. Even a dragnet cannot tell us for certain what it would be like to live below the Ocean's surface. Even if we do not discard any facts (or fish) presented, we will always miss the majority; the site of our fishing, the methods undertaken, the weather and even luck play a vital role in what we will catch. Additionally, the composition of history is inevitably made up by the compilation of many different biases of fact finding - all compounded over time. He concludes that for a historian to attempt a more objective method, one must accept that history can only aspire to a conversation of the present with the past - and that one's methods of fact gathering should be openly examined. Historical truth and facts therefore change over time, and reflect only the present consensus (if that).

Fact in law

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In most common law jurisdictions,[31] the general concept and analysis of fact reflects fundamental principles of jurisprudence, and is supported by several well-established standards.[32][33] Matters of fact have various formal definitions under common law jurisdictions.

These include:

  • an element required in legal pleadings to demonstrate a cause of action;[34][35]
  • the determinations of the finder of fact after evaluating admissible evidence produced in a trial or hearing;[36]
  • a potential ground of reversible error forwarded on appeal in an appellate court;[37] and
  • any of various matters subject to investigation by official authority to establish whether a crime has been perpetrated, and to establish culpability.[38]

Legal pleadings

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A party to a civil suit generally must clearly state all relevant allegations of fact that from the basis of a claim. The requisite level of precision and particularity of these allegations varies, depending on the rules of civil procedure and jurisdiction. Parties who face uncertainties regarding facts and circumstances attendant to their side in a dispute may sometimes invoke alternative pleading.[39] In this situation, a party may plead separate sets of facts that (when considered together) may be contradictory or mutually exclusive. This (seemingly) logically-inconsistent presentation of facts may be necessary as a safeguard against contingencies (such as res judicata) that would otherwise preclude presenting a claim or defense that depends on a particular interpretation of the underlying facts.[40]

Facts submitted by Amicus Curiae

The United States Supreme Court receives and often cites 'facts' obtained from amicus briefs in its decisions. That is not supposed to happen, according to Justice Scalia,:[41]

"Supreme Court briefs are an inappropriate place to develop the key facts in a case. We normally give parties more robust protection, leaving important factual questions to district courts and juries aided by expert witnesses and the procedural protections of discovery." [Inadequate scrutiny can result in] “untested judicial fact-finding masquerading as statutory interpretation.”

Nonetheless, 'facts' introduced in amicus briefs are cited in some Supreme Court decisions,[42] bringing up the need to distinguish between real facts and internet facts:[43]

“The Supreme Court has the same problem that the rest of us do: figuring out how to distinguish between real facts and Internet facts...Amicus briefs from unreliable sources can contribute to that problem.”

See also


  1. "Fact". OED_2d_Ed_1989, (but note the conventional uses: after the fact and before the fact).
  2. "Fact" (1a). OED_2d_Ed_1989 Joye Exp. Dan. xi. Z vij b, Let emprours and kinges know this godly kynges fact. 1545
  3. "Fact" (4a) OED_2d_Ed_1989
  4. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  5. "Fact" (6c). OED_2d_Ed_1989
  6. (See also "Matter" (2,6). Compact_OED)
  7. "Fact" (5). OED_2d_Ed_1989
  8. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, "Fact has a long history of usage in the sense 'allegation'" AHD_4th_Ed. The OED dates this use to 1729.
  9. "Fact" (6a). OED_2d_Ed_1989
  10. "Fact" (8). OED_2d_Ed_1989
  11. Roger Bacon, translated by Robert Burke Opus Majus, Book I, Chapter 2.
  12. "A fact, it might be said, is a state of affairs that is the case or obtains." – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. States of Affairs
  13. See Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 2: What is the case -- a fact -- is the existence of states of affairs.
  14. "A fact is, traditionally, the worldly correlate of a true proposition, a state of affairs whose obtaining makes that proposition true." – Fact in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
  15. Alex Oliver, Fact, in Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  16. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  17. The argument is presented in many places, but see for example Davidson, Truth and Meaning, in Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  18. "Facts possess internal structure, being complexes of objects and properties or relations" Oxford Companion to Philosophy
  19. Fact, in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich, editor. (Oxford, 1995) ISBN 0-19-866132-0
  20. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  21. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  22. (Gower 1996)
  23. (see e.g., Ravetz, p. 182 fn. 1)
  24. Ravetz, p. 185
  25. 25.0 25.1 Gower, p. 138
  26. Gower, p. 7
  27. Ravetz p. 181 et. seq. (Chapter Six: "Facts and their evolution")
  28. Cassell, Eric J. The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine Oxford University Press. Retrieved 16 May 2007.
  29. (Ravetz 1996)
  30. William Dufty (1975) Sugar Blues, page 93
  31. Ed. note: this section of the article emphasizes common law jurisprudence (as primarily represented in Anglo-American–based legal tradition). Nevertheless, the principles described herein have analogous treatment in other legal systems (such as civil law systems) as well.
  32. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  33. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.p. 305
  34. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.p. 277
  35. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  36. Per Lord Shaw of Dunfermline, Clarke v. Edinburgh and District Tramways Co., 1919 S.C.(H.L.) 35, at p 36.
  37. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  38. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  39. Roy W. McDonald, Alternative Pleading in the United States: I Columbia Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Apr., 1952), pp. 443-478
  40. (McDonald 1952)
  41. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  42. Examples are cited by Allison Orr Larsen, posted by Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  43. Kannon K. Shanmugam as quoted by Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.