What is a Fact

A Fact is something real, that you can check, prove or verify.

This page does not replace the excellent Wikipedia page, or the many academic studies. It is instead, an operational definition of fact in the way business uses the word.

An individual may not be able personally to verify a fact. For example, it is hard to check the distance to the moon, or the weight of a cow. So the individual will rely on a statement of that fact from someone trustworthy. That may be a person who weighs cows all the time, or the author of a published book, where we rely on the reputation of the author, their publisher's brand name and so on to verify the fact.

Some facts can appear not to be knowable at all, such as when they relate to an event no-body saw, or is disputed by two people, or a future event that is yet to happen. We can still accept these as facts in some circumstances; for example, in court cases either a jury or a group of judges consider all the evidence and make a finding of fact. In courts there are (at least) two different standards of proof-

  • the the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt
  • the civil standard of "more likely" on the balance of probabilites.

In business we tend to use a standard of proof closer to the civil law standard. We like to justify decisions on numbers and rarely talk about probabilities, but the measurements supporting decisions are just estimates that are probably close enough, given the amount of money at risk in the decision and the amount of effort we want to spend on measuring the numbers. A measurement is an estimate, and the more effort we spend on measuring, (usually) the better the estimate.

A fact can include a range of numbers, for example where the distance to the moon varies a little during the course of a year.

We rely on scientists to challenge each others' work and find errors (of data or interpretation). So scientific facts emerge when almost all scientists stop arguing and accept the weight of evidence as proving the fact. For a scientist, claiming something as fact and having it later proven wrong is very bad for their career, so scientists tend to make claims they can easily prove and are unlikely to be disproven. Hence scientists often stress what we don't know as much as what they can prove. Compared to say, politicians and salespeople, scientists usually sound very cautious.