Facts are sacred, opinion is free

The above phrase was the motto of an editor of the then Manchester Guardian, which has at least attempted to honour it throughout its history until now. But is it entirely clear that facts can be separated from opinion or interpretation?

An astronomer is looking at images from a powerful telescope of a pair of linked stars in the Milky Way galaxy. One star appears to be drawing material from the other, creating a special form of light, where the stars are joined. The astronomer notices that an area of this light vanishes from view, only to re-appear more than an hour later. The astronomer explains this as the occlusion of the light by a body moving in front of it, in fact by a large planet, possibly the size of Jupiter. After many more observations of this phenomenon, and examinations of the data by others the event is reported as the discovery of a new exoplanet, which is probably not earth-like.

Now where are the facts in this process? The astronomer is looking at images on a screen. Are they facts? Yes, but they are facts about a screen. Ah, but they are caused by light waves which have travelled light years through space. So we have facts about light waves. Ah but we know that they come from a source, which can be located in space-time. But we only “know” that because we accept an interpretation of the data we receive from space-time, an interpretation which has developed over two thousand years, and may continue to develop in ways that alter how we the think of the data we are dealing with now. It may therefore be important, while not denying the fact of this exoplanet, to keep the primary data, the images on the screen, so that a future astronomer may re-interpret them in the light of greater knowledge, to establish a different fact.

The above is enough I think to show that fact and interpretation are not simple to disentangle. Facts are not only primary data but may be constructed from such data by interpretation. Because any data at all must be received by the human mind, we know of no facts which are untouched by humanity. We are immersed in a constantly changing field of events, by which we ourselves are changed. Noticing and interpreting these changes is our special ability as a species.

We honour facts when we do not force the basic events of our experience into some predetermined story, either scientific, social or political, but resist prejudice, testing our construction of facts always against the grain of reality and the experience of others. This not easy, and requires discipline. For example, we should learn not to privilege certain sorts of events more than others. We should establish a democracy of basic events, so that events involving say, animals, are just as important as those involving human beings or planets. Jesus knew this: “not a sparrow falls to earth without your father in heaven.” He suggests that God is not prejudiced, relates to all creatures and loves all.

For Christian believers a disciplined attention to data, and a careful construction of facts is part of our imitation of God.

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