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Memories of the 28th Century

Fact and Conjecture

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1. Something that actually exists; reality; truth:
Your fears have no basis in fact.

Scientific fact
Any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted.

1. The formation or expression of an opinion or theory without sufficient evidence for proof.
2. An opinion or theory so formed or expressed; guess; speculation.

I am beginning to think that many people fail to distinguish between fact and conjecture. This came to mind just now with respect to a recently dreamed up theory that human activity became great enough around 1610 for that to define a different geological era. ( The article speculates that the drop in atmospheric CO2 that appears to have occurred around 1610 was caused by European invaders in North America and South America disrupting agriculture such that less CO2 was released. While the invasion did disrupt large agricultural cultures, there is no reason to think that that would have had any effect on atmospheric CO2, and the wild vegetation and animals that would have thriven more after disruption of agricultural societies would have produced about the same amounts of CO2. Regardless, of that, this idea is speculation, because there is no objective evidence, simply conjecture. This sort of thinking seems to have become more common recently; someone will present a guess that may explain some data as actual fact, rather than clearly stating that it is a guess. Perhaps I should characterize these guesses as untried hypotheses, which is what scientists should call them, rather than asserting them as facts.

I think highly of the scientific method, whereby hypotheses are created and tested, and, if when tested a hypothesis fits the results, then it can be called fact, but if a hypothesis cannot be tested, then it cannot be factual.

Scientists make all sorts of conjectures. Sometimes a conjecture is purely for amusement. Sometimes a conjecture is the beginning of a hypothesis. Actual scientists know that a conjecture that is untestable is just hot air. And I will confess that I regularly conjecture. I wonder whether reporters understand the difference between fact and conjecture.

Science is generally very good at observing and describing things, and science has a clear definition of fact, see above. That definition doesn’t include guesses, speculations, or conjecture. But many people jump from wild guess to foregone conclusion, and I’m not referring to Sherlock Holmes. Part of the problem that I have is that many journalists don’t understand the idea of scientific fact, so they write up what someone tells them without regard for whether it is guess or fact, and many readers take “news stories” as fact. A connected problem is that some people use reasoning that is rather abstruse, composed of abstractions, analogies, and more conjectures, rather than using objective evidence. If evidence is presented that is not patently clear as objective evidence, then it should be doubted or rejected.

I frequently point out that the material presented by climate change alarmists is not scientific, but that is not the only example that is readily available. The recent story that I mentioned above, regarding human domination of Earth (link above) is an excellent example of conjecture. The article is a pleasant little ramble through the matter, but no scientific facts are presented that support the conjecture.

Another area where conjecture is common is in criminal prosecution. I am happy that I am not involved in that business, but I regularly read news articles about trials, and I make conclusion based on the evidence provided. The evidence that news outlets provide is usually incomplete, but it is more complete than what is printed regarding scientific matters.

My recent blog on “Marketing Hype” is another place where conjecture, guess, and fact are mixed together, and the object is to fool as many people as possible into buying the hyped product(s). It appears that many people accept marketing hype as fact.

Conjecture is a wonder thing, but I wish that people would make it clear that something is conjecture.