We once bought a Readers Digest book of facts (or some such thing) with an introduction by the great Magnus Magnussen, in which he quoted Burns.

CP Scott would later give us the phrase “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.

“But facts are chiels that winna ding / An downa be disputed”1.

A Dream, Robert Burns, 1786

But, in of themselves, facts are boring. There are 2,561 rail stations in Great Britain. Nunavut is a territory in Canada. I weigh 80kg. Monk Pit Lock connected the River Aire with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. So what?

Facts need context to make them relevant. “I weigh 80kg” is a fact; “I am 10kg overweight” gives the fact meaning – to me, at least.

The problem with giving facts context is that context leads to opinion and bias. “I weigh 80kg” is a fact; “You fat bastard” is an opinion. And not a very nice one.

But we are all coloured by our opinions, and an innate ability to take a mere fact as a contrary view – even when it’s just a fact.

For example: I have never read a Harry Potter Book. Or sat through a Harry Potter film. The first questions that spring to your mind are “Don’t you like Harry Potter?” or “What’s wrong with Harry Potter?” or “Are you weird?”

I don’t know if I like Harry Potter or not; I’ve never read the books or watched the films. The clue was in the statement, but most people choose to ignore that bit and apply their own ‘bias filter’2.

Which is why I’m slightly amused to see such great use of the phrase “fact-checking”. A fact is always true. If it isn’t true then it’s not a fact – it’s a lie. “Truth-checking” is what they’re actually doing, but words like ‘truth’ and ‘lie’ seem a bit too bald for most people so we couch them in terms that make us sound cleverer than we are. Fact?

  1. “Facts are fellows that cannot be overturned / And cannot be disputed” []
  2. If ‘bias filter’ isn’t a phrase already, I’m claiming it []