For most of us (at least in the United States), we learned the difference between facts and opinions in elementary school. We were taught how to spot the differences and assigned exercises to reinforce the lessons. Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten the difference between the two. Maybe it is because we have stopped applying those lessons. Maybe it is that we are constantly deluged with opinions disguised as fact by so-called journalists and our friends and family on social networking sites.
Dictionary definitions withstanding, a fact is a statement that is verifiable. With a fact, one can research and objectively determine if it true or false. A fact by itself is useless and needs to have context which can allow one to draw conclusions and give it meaning.
On the other hand, opinions are statements that are based on belief, sentiment, and even emotion. Unlike a fact, an opinion is subjective even if it is supported by facts. Opinions can even change over time. An opinion is usually insufficient to convince others and it is recommended that they be supported by factual evidence.
There are two schools of thought in regards to facts that are not true. Some will say that a fact that is not true is actually an opinion. Others will say that facts can be either true or false. Regardless of philosophy, a fact that is false is one that has no value and should be disregarded (some would even call them lies).
These distinctions are even more important in realm of politics. Political pundits, journalists reporting political news present opinion as fact or use false facts to support their opinions. At times, we are overwhelmed with news that is a mixture facts and opinion. It is nearly impossible to keep to keep it all straight and diligence is required.
Let’s consider an example.
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C., Feb 17 (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, scrambling to find a new top security aide after firing his first one and being spurned by another candidate, said on Friday he has four people under consideration including acting national security adviser Keith Kellogg.
Trump ousted Michael Flynn on Monday in a controversy over the retired lieutenant general’s contacts with Russia. Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward on Thursday turned down the Republican president’s offer to replace Flynn.
The above quote was taken from a Reuters article published by Huffington Post. This passage contains a number of facts and opinions.
- “U.S. President Donald Trump, scrambling to find a new top security aide after firing his first one and being spurned by another candidate” This statement is an opinion. It uses descriptive words, scrambling and spurned, to describe the situation. This is a subjective description and it is not verifiable.
- “he has four people under consideration including acting national security adviser Keith Kellogg” This statement is a fact as it can be verified. One can ask the Trump administration if it is true and they can give an answer and possibly the candidates that are in consideration.
- “Trump ousted Michael Flynn on Monday in a controversy over the retired lieutenant general’s contacts with Russia.” While one can argue that this statement is a fact, it really is an opinion as it is a belief as to why Flynn was asked to resign. If anything, it could be called a false fact as the administration has made statements indicating his resignation had nothing to do his contact with Russia.
- “‘General Keith Kellogg, who I have known for a long time, is very much in play for NSA – as are three others,’ Trump said on Twitter, without naming the other candidates.” This statement is a fact because one can go to Twitter and see if Trump really did tweet that.
As we can see, an article that is published can have opinions and facts mixed. By exercising basic skills that we learned in elementary school, we have the tools to sort through opinions posing as facts.