"fact" = notion or idea that has not been established as a fact or is not a fact

Michael McKernan mckernan at LOCALNET.COM
Sun Apr 30 01:38:52 UTC 2006

Jonathan Lighter wrote:

>Subject:      Re: "fact" = notion or idea that has not been established as a
>              fact or is not a fact
>In other words, a "social fiction."
>  But seriously, this meaning of "fact" is everywhere....

Wait just a minute.  Some of my favorite facts are 'social facts.'

AFAIK, the Durkheimian concept of 'social fact' relates to beliefs (and
belief systems), and acknowledges that beliefs, whether demonstrably 'true'
or 'false' based on evaluation by some alternative belief system (say,
'Chinese medicine' evaluated by 'modern Western science'), are actually
(truly) believed by many, if not all, proponents of such belief systems.
Thus, it is a social fact that to most practitioners of Chinese medicine,
the human 'liver' is located in an entirely different place within the body
than the 'liver' recognized by modern Western science/medicine (which, of
course, claims that the liver location is demonstrable by dissection,
etc.).  Chinese medical practitioners have a very different explanation,
and 'proof' of where the liver is, and they apply accupuncture and other
therapies, based on that understanding.

The belief system we know as modern Western science, of course, also has
consisted, and continues to consist, of social facts, many of which have
eventually be proven false by the error-eliminating methods supposedly
built into 'the scientific method.'  Note how often, particularly in the
case of medicine,  social facts have been constructed into entire
industries of procedures and therapies, only to be discarded when some lone
crusader, working against stiff opposition by fellow practitioners of
science/medicine, finally upsets the applecart.  Case in point:  the
bacteria which cause gastric ulcers.  For many decades, 'the best'
scientific physicians insisted that ulcers were caused by stress, etc., and
that bacteria could not survive in the gastric environment.

The moral of my story is, however, more complex.  'Social fact,' properly
understood, is not 'social fiction,' even if a particular social fact
proves to be 'false' based on some (generally accepted) criterion of
'truth.'  Instead, 'social facts' are inherently 'true' as statements of
what some group of people truly/observably believes.

Thus a Buddhist belief in reincarnation is a social fact:  it is true that
(some or all) Buddhists believe in reincarnation.  Whether or not a
proponent of a different belief system believes that reincarnation can be
proven or disproven to exist, the social fact that Buddhists believe in
reincarnation remains true.

Beyond this basic truth (that believers believe what they believe, and may
act or communicate accordingly), a social fact sometimes may be verifiably
'false,' when evaluated by the criteria of any particular belief system
(including its own, as demonstrated by the case of gastric ulcers in modern
Western science/medicine).

The concept of social fact is extremely useful for anyone who attempts to
understand a belief system--including that person's own--or compare belief
systems.  I question whether any profound understanding of belief systems
is possible without some concept of 'social fact.'

Michael McKernan

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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