Sunday, July 05, 2009


One of the hardest things to do is establish the truth. Somebody a few days ago told me, "The truth is whatever corresponds to the facts." This is of course a venerable approach to determining (and I use this word precisely) the truth. But what is it that makes a fact actually a fact?

You can't say that a fact is what is known to be true if you're defining truth as what corresponds to the facts. That's circular reasoning. It's like mathematics; you know what is true in mathematics because a statement that is mathematically true follows all the laws that develop out of the axioms. But you cannot say that axioms are true because everything that they determine turns out to be true.

A lot of 'truth' these days is taken for granted. That is, it is seen as if something a person describes as a fact is indeed a fact. But very few people actually realise that the word 'fact' comes from the Latin facere ('to do') and means 'something that is done'. In some contexts, it has come to mean 'something that is made'. For example, what do you think a 'factory' does? What is a 'factor of production'? And 'manufacture' means 'to make something by hand (manually)'.

Many of the 'facts' that students present to me are actually constructs of varying degrees of verifiability. The word 'verify' itself, coming from Latin verus ('true') and facere ('to make', in this context), means 'to make true'. It doesn't mean 'to determine if it is true or not'; it means 'to make it such that it is true'. If I ask you to verify something, I am asking you to prove that it is true, and not tell me if it isn't.

Some of them are downright amusing. The '100 Eskimo words for snow' meme in particular is rather durable and entertaining. It started with 7 (in 1911), became 50 (in 1978), and turned to 100 (in 1984). The fewer the native speakers of Eskimo tongues (of which there are several), the more the words for snow, it seems.

It turned out that someone was having too much fun. Eskimo words can be compound polysynthetics; that is, they can be made of many little units strung together like a polymer chain. In that respect, they're a bit like some Welsh and German words. So if you said, "Snow that looks like the fine dust of my skin when I scratch and let it fall on the dark floor," that could be one word in Eskimo, and yet another one for the lexicon.

I read an essay in which the 'fact' of there being 100 words for snow in Eskimo was presented as evidence for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That's a bit like saying that English is obsessed with blue because there are more than 100 words for 'blue' in English. I shall leave that 'fact' as an exercise for the student, noting that in some sense it is more true than the Eskimo 'snow' meme.

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