Defining “fact”

Kellyanne Conway has termed a new, 1984-style neologism, that of “alternative facts”. That’s as silly as it is outrageous. But the response to Conway hasn’t been always intellectually up to par. Here’s Politico:

Merriam-Webster poked at the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, appearing to take senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to task for saying that press secretary Sean Spicer was offering up “alternative facts” about the crowd size at the inauguration.

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a pinned tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how lookups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

Unfortunately, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” is an outright terrible definition of “fact”. Indeed, the claim that 1.5 million people attended Trump’s inauguration can well be a fact on this definition, as long as it is “presented as” having “objective reality”, which Trump’s press secretary might well have. And some things which are clearly facts—e.g., that I own a copy of Ulysses—fail to be facts on this definition, as they are not presented as anything to anyone. That’s because facts are facts: they just are, independent from whether they are presented in some context or not.

This is not an exception. I tell undergraduates over and over again not to use dictionaries for serious intellectual work. This is because dictionary definitions, while good for obscure words and teaching usage, are normally sloppy, often outright terrible at accuracy, at least the kind of accuracy needed for academic writing. Generally, dictionaries are poor guides to resolve intellectual disagreements; they are normally not even good guides to resolve disagreements over definitions. Bashing Conway & Co. is one thing—but at least you should get your facts (ahem) straight.

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