What Is a Fact

A fact is a phenomenon that has an actual, objective existence. For humans to understand facts, observations must be made of them. Contrary to the old adage "seeing is believing," these observations are not necessarily visual, but might be gathered through other senses. Observations regarding everyday facts could include seeing a sunset, smelling a flower, or hearing thunder. However, what is considered as a fact can change in terms of how it is interpreted. For example, the sun can be observed to move through the sky, which was at one time interpreted as evidence that the sun moves around the Earth. Of course, we now know that the Earth revolves around the sun, and it is the Earth that is moving. The Earth's rotation and its revolution around the sun, however, did not suddenly become real as soon as humans realized that these were the actual processes. So, to qualify as facts, actual and objective phenomena should exist independent of human perceptions.

Observations do not have to be direct to provide facts. After all, no one has actually seen an atom or a bacterium without the aid of instruments, yet no rational person doubts their factual existence. Phenomena detected by animals (see box)

have no less existence just because humans cannot perceive them. Those that lie beyond the unaided sensory realm of humans can be detected through tools that amplify their effects. Examples of these are mass spectrometers that count atoms (Chapter 4) and microscopes that provide magnified images of bacteria. Direct observations that deal with dinosaurs might include seeing a footprint made by one or feeling a dinosaur skeleton, but indirect observations might include detecting what chemicals compose their eggs or looking at dinosaur bone structures through a microscope. Regardless of whether these observations are direct or indirect, they qualify as facts because they are based on objects that actually exist. Facts are ideally undeniable, although some observations can lead to different interpretations. Consequently, explanations for those facts are subject to debate and are malleable, but facts constitute evidence, which is the foundation of scientific methods.

Interestingly, different forms of evidence in paleontology are treated as being less or more direct evidence of ancient life. Body fossils, such as shells, bones, eggs, feathers, and skin impressions, are often considered as more directly relating to ancient life than trace fossils, such as burrows, tracks, trails, nests, toothmarks, and feces (Chapter 14). An analysis of which type of fossil evidence is held in the higher regard by paleontologists can be conducted by simply examining cover photographs or illustrations of science journals. The clear and overwhelming favorite is body fossils, and the majority of these are dinosaurs or fossil humans. An independent test of this favoritism can then be applied to the articles in the journals. Again, those that deal with body fossils are much more common than those about trace fossils, despite the fact that trace fossils made by these same organisms may be much more common in the geologic record. Nevertheless, trace fossils are now more highly regarded than in the past because paleontologists who study them are promoting their intrinsic value in interpreting, for example, ancient behavior (Chapter 14). In paleoanthropology, controversy raged for a long time over whether ancient hominids from 3.5 million years ago walked upright or not, and the conflicts were all based on interpretations of a few fragmentary skeletal

Unlike humans, canines can hear in frequencies beyond normal human hearing, and some birds can see in the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

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