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« BFTP: Hardening of the opinions | Main | Conference envy - maybe not »
Tuesday
Jun262018

Just as important as fact vs opinion

  • Schools have been teaching how to tell statements of fact from statements of opinion for at least 40 years (Fact - I was teaching it in 1976.)
  • Schools have not been doing a very good job of teaching how to tell fact from opinion. (Fact - a study by Pew Research shows that only 36% of Americans could discriminate fact from opinion.)
  •  I am good at telling facts from opinion. (Fact - based on a score of 100% on a quiz given by the Pew Research.) Or wait, maybe that's an opinion...

Knowing how tell whether something is a fact or an opinion has long been viewed as an important skill, especially for citizens in a country which is supposedly democratic. Yet with each passing day, whether because of current events or due to my encroaching senile dementia, I find telling fact from opinion seems not just more difficult, but insufficient in making good decisions.

Just a few random "skills" that are as important as fact/opinion discrimination:

  1. Determining the reliability of the facts. Just because something is verifiable doesn't make it true. Many statements are verifiably false should we only take the time to examine them.
  2. Understanding the relationship among facts, opinions, and values. How do our values impact what facts we use to support our opinions? Opinions are the result of weighing and selecting facts according to personal values.
  3. Asking if any writing can be free of bias. What is the purpose of the writing and how might that purpose influence the facts (and language) chosen for inclusion? Objectivity, like fairness, is perhap an unobtainable quality.
  4. Understanding the context needed to determine the importance or value of a fact. If I tell you that I weigh 200 pounds but neither my height or body fat percentage, how much good does knowing my weight do anyone trying to determine whether I am healthy?
  5. Accepting that no political stance is free of confmation bias. While Stephen Cobert's statement that facts have a liberal bias gets a nod and a chuckle from most of my friends, the sign of a genuine thinker is that she/he understands it is human nature to seek out the evidence that best supports one's personal values. And this includes liberals as well as conservatives.
  6. Understanding that opinions can be valuable. Many opinions, espcially expert opinions, are judgements based on the collection and analysis of lots of facts - facts that have been substantiated and place in context. A thoughtful opinion is an effective means of getting reliable information.

Oversimplification of good decision-making seems even more dangerous than not being able to tell fact from opinion. That's my conclusion.

But then as Arthur Bloch once said  "A conclusion is the place where you get tired of thinking."

Your opinion?

Yes, I noticed that difference is misspelled in the graphic above. But I still like the quote.

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