Beyond belief

Ziauddin Sardar's article ("Checking the facts", 8 January) shows only that the primary definition of "fact" in the Concise Oxford Dictionary is inaccurate because it has an epistemological dimension. A fact is not "a thing that is known to have occurred, to exist, or to be true", but simply a state of affairs that has obtained and/or does obtain, whether we know it or not.

When the pre-Copernican astronomer "stated the fact" that the sun moved round the earth, he expressed a belief. It makes sense to say his belief turned out to be false, but not that the fact became false. Facts do not "become false in retrospect". Rather, as our knowledge increases, we come to see that our previous beliefs were wrong.

David Ottewell
London N3

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage