26 November 2020

Know what it is you want to know.

What is your question?

There are two types of questions: Questions of fact and questions of cause. Both types of questions can be sources for disagreement.

The focus of questions of fact may be a person (who?), a thing (what?), a point in space (where?), a point in time (when?), or a number (how many?, how much? how often?). Questions of fact can often be answered by a single datum or record.

"What is the capital of Switzerland?"
"At what temperature does water boil?"

Statements are either true or false and are often based on conventions. If a statement corresponds to an observable phenomenon that can be independently verified, it is called a fact, a matter of fact, or a statement of fact. That said, a fact may be provisional.

"The capital of Germany is Berlin." (true until 1949 and after 1990)
"The capital of Germany is Bonn." (true between 1949 and 1990)

Facts may also require further definitions.

"Climate change is a fact."
"Global mean surface temperature has been rising since the early 1900s."

What is meant by climate change? What are the exact definitions of global mean surface temperature, rising, and early 1900s?

Questions of cause address often complicated causal chains of events (how?, why?). Finding answers to these questions requires logically consistent arguments and a series of independent observations. Statements of cause are either invalid or valid.

A statement of cause is valid as long as no observation has been made that refutes the claim of the statement. Because a cause can never be verified, it will only constitute provisional explanation.

"Childbed fever is caused by bacterial infections."
"Human activity is the cause for climate change."

Depending on scope and detail of the question and your prior knowledge, the process of answering may vary in duration from the few seconds it takes to google the question to a lifetime of scholarship. Whatever your commitment, an explicitly stated question at the beginning will save you grief and time later.

Keep in mind that not everything you want to know is actually known or knowable. We only have limited access to the world around us.

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