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I've seen this so many times and it drives me crazy. The latest was the actor Paul Giamatti setting some story straight in the press about him: "It's unfortunately an incorrect fact about me and it's all over the place."

I've seen this written so many times, in magazines, books, but surely a fact is, by definition, true. So there cannot be any such thing as a "false" fact. Right?

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+1 Nice question, as far as I can remember, I never thought about this. –  Alenanno Apr 22 '11 at 11:42
    
Is "Get Your Facts Straight" politically incorrect :-) ? –  ron M. Apr 22 '11 at 14:55

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

NOAD gives this listing:

fact |fakt| noun a thing that is indisputably the case : she lacks political experience—a fact that becomes clear when she appears in public | a body of fact.

So it would seem that something that is "indisputably the case" could not be "incorrect"; and I am sure that, strictly speaking, this is a fact.

Nevertheless, very often people state as fact what is merely opinion. In fact, whenever you hear someone start a sentence with "the fact is" or "in fact" you are well advised to weigh carefully whatever claim is being made.

We also hear people speaking of "true facts" (which surely should be a redundancy) and "alleged facts". In the sense that anything can be true, a fact must be true, but what is true is almost always negotiable. Something that is not proven should not be called factual, though people do it all the time.

Where does that leave us? I myself would avoid using qualifiers with the word "fact" but I would tolerate it in others; but then, I always weigh the claims made by others (especially news writers), and I advise others to do the same.

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Just as I suspected. "True facts" and "alleged facts" added to the list of things that annoy me. Lol. Thanks. –  Django Reinhardt Apr 22 '11 at 11:36
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Really, you are always well advised to weigh carefully claims being made. (Except this one; this one is okay.) –  MrHen Apr 22 '11 at 13:32
    
@MrHen: Rule of thumb: everything I say is 100% true, unequivocal, undeniable, cast-in-stone, government-certified fact. I vouch for it myself. –  Robusto Apr 22 '11 at 13:42
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@MrHen: All generalisations are wrong. –  David Schmitt Apr 22 '11 at 14:13

A fact, by definition is something that is indisputable, as @Robusto said.

Consider though, if somebody presents a piece of information as fact, believing it to be so, but then are proven incorrect. Then what they thought a fact would be incorrect.

Still, I wouldn't say that the claim was an 'incorrect fact' because once the opposing evidence is given, the information ceases to be a fact.

I suppose then, we should say that it is 'erroneous information' rather than 'an incorrect fact'.

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Your concern is based on the "primary" definition of "fact": a verified piece of information. There are however other definitions, and one other common definition is "an alleged piece of information." As Wikipedia notes, this second definition is commonly used despite disputes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact

Wikipedia cites: According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, "Fact has a long history of usage in the sense 'allegation'" AHD_4th_Ed. The OED dates this use to 1729.

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Interesting. I'd take a pure definition from the OED over Wikipedia, though. –  Django Reinhardt Apr 22 '11 at 11:52
    
As well you should. Wikipedia cites OED on the long history but does not directly quote its definition. Anyway this seems to me like the sort of thing many others are also annoyed by but you shouldn't be surprised by that usage or openly correct it. –  jhocking Apr 22 '11 at 11:54

A fact is believed to be the truth, but history has shown that truth is generally relative.

Thus it may have been a fact, 2000 years ago, that the earth was flat and it was the center of the known universe. Today, that obviously isn't the case.

Before Newton published his works on Gravity, there were many explanations that people would have taken for fact. When Einstein came along, another shift happened.

Our knowledge isn't absolute, and thus are facts cannot be either. So an incorrect fact is no doubt something that can occur for a period of time (for as long as it takes for the old knowledge to be replaced by the new knowledge) and continues to happen repeatability in our quest for understanding.

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But when it is proven incorrect, it is no longer fact. Whether or not it was fact based on current information available. That said, I agree with you and treat anything labeled as fact as synonymous to 'allegation'. :P –  Kevin Peno Apr 22 '11 at 19:15

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