Facts are facts not firm beliefs;Opinion

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
BELIEVING something very strongly doesn't make it a fact. This might seem self-evident when we are looking at my eldest child's conviction that U2 are rubbish.

Sarah may consider the band's woefulness to be a fact but it isn't. Facts are provable statements and Western scholarship is based on them, just as Western justice is based on the notion of facts which are provable beyond reasonable doubt. These twin rocks form part of a great cliff wall which we call civilisation and that great bastion protects us, daily, from the corrosive tide of intolerance, superstition and muddled thinking.

"Yeah sure, Dad," my daughter replies. For all her apparent sophistication, Sarah is still at that subjective stage, believing that one can choose the meaning of a word and that facts are established solely by your strength of conviction, whereas pedants like me are at the boring old fart stage.

I care about facts, and they've been taking a bashing of late. BBC News is particularly guilty. Fifteen years ago, the Beeb defied popular sentiment and insisted on its objective duty to speak of "British and Argentinian forces" rather than "Our boys" and "Argie savages". But, nowadays, it is not unusual to hear Radio 4 referring to certain killings as murders (if popular sentiment sides with the victim) or executions (if it doesn't).

Similarly, rebels have become freedom fighters (when Britain likes them) and terrorists (when it doesn't). Radio 4 repeatedly refers to the killing of Stephen Lawrence as a "racist murder", yet no one has been convicted. Although many of us do believe white men attacked Stephen Lawrence - and that they did so because he was of a different race - we do not know for a fact who was responsible for his death and so we cannot prove it was the result of racism.

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens did indeed give facts a hard time. It was Gradgrind, the unimaginative industrialist, who believed that children must have facts drummed into them and nothing else. But education should show respect for facts and help children distinguish them from mere belief.

Facts are something we can hold on to in a world where fashion, ideology, political correctness and fundamentalism threaten to sweep away our clarity of thought. And there aren't as many of them as you might think.

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