Friday, September 21, 2007

Opinions, Facts, and How to Tell the Difference

In any kind of rational, informed discourse, especially the kind that is supposed to go on in a democracy or on a college campus, one must be able to distinguish between opinion and fact. In making this distinction, it is vital that the question, what is Truth (big “T”) and what is truth (small “t”) be answered. This is a question that philosophers have been asking since the time of the ancient Greeks. The next question is, is there a difference between Truth (big “T”) and truth (small “t”), and if so what is that difference, followed by; is it important, and if it is, how ought people make the distinction in conversations with others? Some examples may help…

A parent may consider it True (big “T”) that they love their children, but this something they can not prove in an easily verifiable sense. It does not follow that, because they cannot prove that they love their children, that it is equally impossible to prove anything else, like, for instance, that they are in fact, a biological parent of their children. It is quite easy to prove that it is true (small “t”), that they are or are not a biological parent of the children that call them Mom or Dad.

Opinions and facts lie on a continuum of statements or assertions that can be made about the world. Some opinions are entirely subjective and need not be supported by any relevant facts because there are no relevant facts. Other opinions, especially if one wishes them to be respected by others, must be supported by relevant evidence and/or logical argument. Arranged hierarchically these would be:

1. Facts

2. Claims that something about the nature or history of the world/universe is true where the degree to which we accept it as true is determined by the evidence for or against its being true.

3. Opinions that are derived from an interpretation of a line of evidence or argument.

4. Opinions that are a matter of personal taste and so need not be supported by specific facts or arguments.

The best way to illustrate this is through the use of specific examples:

a) As of September 19, 2007, San Francisco Giants left-fielder Barry Bonds has hit 762 career home runs. ( This is a statement of an empirical fact.

b) The first European settlement in the New World was the Viking colony at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. This is a claim that purports to represent a fact about the Universe and whose truth value is determined by the quality of the evidence in favor of it and whose truth value may be re-evaluated in light of new, additional evidence.

c) The Seattle Seahawks are the greatest team to ever play the game of American football. This is a statement of opinion of the kind where the amount of intellectual respect we will grant it depends critically on the quality of the argument and/or evidence offered in its support.

d) Guinness Stout is better than any mass-produced American beer, with the exception of most Sam Adams varieties. This is a statement of personal preference and thus a purely subjective opinion requiring no defense or argument. (Unless, of course, you get into one of those silly “Tastes Great!” versus “Less Filling!” exchanges.)

The one that seems to give people the most trouble is b). Exactly why this should be is unclear. The example chosen for b) was very deliberately picked because it is not controversial.
It would have been easy enough to choose a controversial example, for instance, any number of religious claims that purport to represent facts about human history in the same sense that it is a fact of human history that in the Second World War the U.S. fought Germany, Italy, and Japan would certainly have stirred the pot.

Many human beings, if questioned in the most polite, respectful manner possible about the factual basis for their favorite truth claims, even those claims, that if true, would have a legitimate effect on public policy, can become very defensive. It is as though they were asked to come to the blackboard and work a problem in front of the class when they had not done their homework.

Americans live in a democracy where they are inculcated with the idea, from an early age, that they have a right to freedom of thought and opinion and that their opinion matters. This is a good thing. It is, nonetheless, an unfortunate fact of the world, especially in this media-centric, information-saturated age that there are far more things about which they might have an opinion than there is time to ensure that the opinion is an informed one. People are reluctant, when asked for their opinion, to admit that they have none. They are essentially embarrassed to admit that as a person whose opinion matters, that in the instance in question, they have no opinion. Extending this idea, when people are asked to elaborate on the factual basis for their most cherished truth claims, which they may not have given much thought to previously, they can become embarrassed and defensive when so questioned.

Thinking human beings have a duty to be intellectually honest about why what they think is so, is actually so. To say that one does not have an opinion on whether or not this or that is true (small “t”) is not something of which one need feel ashamed, it is in fact a courageous and intellectually honest stance to take when their opinion, were they to offer one, would be an uninformed one. Like any habit, the habit of offering up an uninformed opinion when pressured to do so in order to fit in, is a hard one to break. It is usually far more embarrassing in the long run to hold an uninformed opinion and be called on it, than to say when asked, that because they had not given it much thought before, they would prefer to not offer an opinion at that time.

This is something all human beings are prone to so it is important to keep the golden rule in mind. When the facts upon which a favorite belief or opinion is based are discovered to be not as solid as once thought, one should treat others as one would hope to be treated were the roles reversed, because eventually, they will be.