When I first started perusing the wonderfully wide world of the web, searching for the juiciest and truthiest of global warming facts, I would often come across sites upon which the owner had helpfully summarised the nature of the debate using two lists: one labelled ‘The Facts’ and the other labelled ‘The Myths’. However, it soon transpired that it was always the same pair of lists and the only difference between the sceptics and believers was their allocation of labels. This, of course, didn’t help a great deal. Such games of declarative ping-pong also called into question the very concept of the ‘fact’. Just how factual does a fact have to be before some group or other can’t label it a myth?
Now I am older and wiser, and when I happen across a website claiming to know the difference between a global warming fact and a myth I find it a lot harder to fake the ecstasy. I already know that it is a myth that 1970s scientists were more worried about an imminent ice age than they were of global warming, and I already know that it is a myth that this is a myth. Much better that I waste my time investigating whence we first got the idea that there were any such things as facts.
The Fact is Born
To understand how the ‘fact’ came to monopolize our grasp of reality one has to appreciate that the word originates from the Latin factum, meaning ‘that which has been done’. Accordingly, the word found its earliest application within ye olde judicial system as it strove to ascertain the deeds that had been performed (this usage can still be found in phrases such as ‘accessory after the fact’). The wider meaning relating to the observation of events or situations, as opposed to just the testimony of deeds, only became prevalent in the mid to late 17th century. Prior to that, there was no need for a word to describe a reality determined through observation or experiment, since the Ancients had already sorted reality out – at least as far as the medieval mind-set was concerned.
I won’t bore you with the details,1 but early English usage within the wider context appears to be down to the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Kenelm Digby2 (though they probably both got the idea directly or indirectly from Galileo, who had already started to use factum to refer to the phenomena he was observing). Being representative of reality, facts were to be distinguished from opinions – whether they be the authoritative speculations that preceded the discovery of the facts, or the authoritative pontification that resulted from such discoveries. So when Digby wrote that the fantasies women have during sexual intercourse affect the appearance of their children, he believed himself to be stating a fact, and was careful not to offer an opinion as to how this works.
The Fact’s Difficult Childhood
Today we would say that the facts speak for themselves. However, in the infancy of the fact things were very different. As befitting all things yet to achieve maturity, facts were to be seen and not heard. Take, for example, the dogged persistence of the Ptolemaic system. The ideas that the Earth was at the centre of the universe and that all celestial motion must be perfect (and hence circular) were so cherished and entrenched that no amount of evidence of aberrant planetary motion seemed able to dislodge them. By introducing deferents, epicycles, eccentrics and equants, it always seemed possible to amend the mathematical models to ‘salve the phenomenon’. Facts could be problematic, but their voice had yet to gain the respect required for the overthrow of a received wisdom. Furthermore, it mattered little to the astronomers if the model required to explain planetary motion in the plane of the ecliptic was inconsistent with that used to explain motions above and below this plane.3 Much like modern climate models, as long as there was a model for every problem requiring an explanation, everyone was happy. Model integrity and consistency was then (and remains today) a matter of artistry and expedience.
To cut a long story short, the observed phases of Venus finally put paid to this jiggery-pokery,4 but the cherished ideas of the Ancients were still to be found in texts long after the facts had spoken. It took an awfully long time for ‘the matter of fact’ to emerge from the long shadow cast by scholastic authority and to gain the epistemic potency it so thoroughly deserved.
The Fact Comes of Age
Eventually, the promulgation of ancient wisdom, as passed down through the ages via manuscript, proved to be no match for the promulgation of fact, courtesy of the printing press. Indeed, there is a view5 that it wasn’t the introduction of experimentation and the technical apparatus for its conduct that drove the Scientific Revolution. It was instead the invention of the printing press and its ability to open up experimental results to a wider audience, thereby facilitating peer review and replication. With the printing press, the fact would never look back, and science and the fact became inseparable friends. And yet, things were not all calypso and candy.
The problem stems from the judicial context within which the word ‘fact’ first found its application. The legal process by which the ‘matters of fact’ could be determined required careful scrutiny of witness testimony, and usually the credibility of such testimony rested upon the authority enjoyed by the witness. Ideally, this authority came purely from the witness having direct experience to report, but often it would also rest upon the influence and standing of the individual concerned. This matters, because once the jury had established the facts, the Truth had been made known unto Man.
All of the above remained the case even after the definition of ‘fact’ had broadened to apply to both professed deeds and observed events. Since the fact had been born in the courtroom, the means of ascertaining scientific factuality was to become tainted by the legacy of legalism.6 Matters of scientific fact still depended upon the credibility of testimony, and credibility took many forms. The voice of ancient authority could no longer get away with just any old foolhardiness, but this did not mean that facts were the new authority, since facts only became facts through respected reportage and authoritative endorsement. As for the sanctity of scientific truth – well this rather depended upon how the pious expected God to reveal Himself.
The Fact Goes Senile
It’s well over 300 years now since the scientific fact was invented and in that time the fact can be very proud of what it has achieved. Notwithstanding social intrigue, the fact is a potent weapon that can counter much cultivated nonsense. It is the nearest thing we have to a record of reality, and it provides the solvent by which even the toughest of prejudicial stains may be dissolved. However, in our post-modern times, the matter of fact has itself dissolved to such an extent that it now operates very much like a matter of opinion.
When the determination of scientific facts through direct and replicated experience first became popular it had the effect of undermining the dogma du jour. Now the fact does not have that same impact, largely because the use of the term has been widened to include such dogma.7 Hypothesis can now be easily passed off as fact as long as the source enjoys the confidence of its audience. We seem to be back to square one, where we get our ideas from recognized authority and treat them as though they were facts. Except that this time we now have the internet to aid and abet our allegiances and prejudices. In the same way that the printing press democratized the fact, thus enabling the cruel exposure of ancient scripture’s naivety, the internet has democratized prejudice, thus enabling the cruel exposure of the fact’s subjective underbelly. No doubt, the truth is still out there; I’m just not that confident anymore that it will win the battle for hearts and minds. And even if it did, I’m not sure how we would tell.
 The person who could provide you with the details without boring you would be David Wootton, The Invention of Science (2015).
Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Law, Natural and Political (1640); Kenelm Digby, On the Immortality of Reasonable Souls (1644).
 Owen Jay Gingerich, Johannes Kepler (1989).
 It would be remiss of me if I were to fail to point out that prior to the discovery of Venus’s phases the main competing astronomical theories (the Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Tycho Brahe’s Geoheliocentrism) were underdetermined, i.e. the known facts could be made to fit them all. In such circumstances the facts are subservient to the preferred ideologies of the day.
 I refer here to the Eisenstein thesis, first propounded by Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of change (1979).
 The same could be said regarding the terms ‘scientific evidence’ and ‘laws of nature’. Both have their roots in the judicial system and in both cases this legacy has implications. However, let us not overcomplicate things. Ascertaining scientific facts is difficult enough without having to then consider their role in providing evidence of nature’s laws.
 It has also been loosened to apply to logical necessities, such as 2+2=4. These necessities were referred to by David Hume as ‘Relations of Ideas’ and, as such, were to be contrasted with ‘Matters of Fact’. Nowadays, we tend not to make such a distinction, which rather muddies the idea that facts are supposed to be contingent, i.e. they could have been otherwise.