Some Thoughts on Fact and Opinion

I developed these ideas when I was thinking about writing a second edition of Teaching Reading Comprehension.  Never finished it (at least I had not as of 2018).  My ideas about what kids need to learn about F&O before they leave the K-12 system. Especially timely in the era of Trump and Alternative Facts!!!

There is probably no critical reading skill we teach that is more complicated or murky than the ability to distinguish facts from opinions.  It is fear and trepidation that I venture to discuss even the simple-minded suggestions in this paper.  However, the distinction is too important to overlook or leave to chance.  Even if we cannot provide students all the answers to some very tricky logical and philosophical problems, we can give them some heuristic guidelines that may be helpful.

What every student should know about fact and opinion when they leave high school

That statements containing value-laden judgmental words are more likely to be opinions than facts. The use of any adjective of quality is likely to render a statement an opinion.  Hence any word denoting some point along the continuum of goodness (good, bad, better, best, worse, worst) is almost certain to be an opinion.  The same goes for the continua of beauty (ugly, pretty, etc.), fairness, or congeniality (nice, pleasant, mean, etc.).  This is because the empirical tests one could use to verify goodness, fairness, beauty, etc., are not as clear-cut and transparent as are the tests one could use to evaluate, say, height, weight, or even drunkenness.  This brings us quite naturally to the second concept that students need to learn about fact and opinion.

That statements of fact are more readily verifiable than are statements of opinion. I am not altogether sure that this criterion is any different from the first; however, I do think that students need to learn that verifiability is an important criterion to apply to a statement to determine its factuality.  Notice that the verifiability criterion allows one to distinguish the opinion, John is a good furniture maker, from the statements of fact, John is a furniture maker, or John’s furniture brings a good price on the furniture market.  But it also allows us to distinguish the opinion, Ben drinks too much, from the statement of fact, Ben drinks a quart of Jack Daniels each day.  This observation brings us to the third potentially overlapping concept.

That compared to specific statements, general statements are more likely to be opinions. Notice that in the last contrast between drinking too much and a quart of Jack Daniels a day, the former is a generalization while the latter is more like a “detail.”  Notice that this general/specific criterion also allows us to distinguish between the opinion, John is a slob, from the statement of fact, John’s living room is strewn with a mixture of dirty clothes and dirty dishes.  But notice that in general, general statements are less subject to verifiability than are specific statements; the test for the existence of dirty clothes and dishes is more transparent than the test for “slobness.”

That people are likely to regard statements containing “pejorative” terms as opinions. Notice that the statement, Henry is a creep, seems more like an opinion than does the statement, Henry is a journalist.  Again, we have another criterion that is confounded with the verifiability criterion; the test for determining membership in the journalist category is clearer, more transparent, than the test for membership in the creep category.

That statements containing certain adverbial-like qualifiers are highly likely to be opinions. It is interesting that certain adverbs, such as always, never, too, and very, are likely to be part of opinions, whereas other adverbs, such as occasionally and sometimes, are more likely to be part of statements of fact (or at the least more modest statements of opinion).

That there are certain verbs that logically imply that what follows carries the force of opinion rather than fact. For example, in the sentence, George believes that rabbits have two ears and six legs, the force of the sentence is that I, the speaker, am about to utter an opinion that I know to be held by George.  Notice, however, that the entire sentence qualifies as a statement of fact; it could be paraphrased, It is a fact (i.e., I have compelling evidence—such as hearing him utter the sentence on more than one occasion) that George believes that rabbits have two ears and six legs.

That certain words, when they appear in a statement, render it an opinion. Any statement containing the verbs ought, could, or should automatically make it an opinion.  The qualifiers probably, possibly, and likely, as well as the phrases, It is possible (probably, likely) that . . ., have the same effect.

That you have facts about opinions, and opinions about facts.

f(o): Matthew thinks Notre Dame is a good football team.
o(f): It is probably true that Illinois is in the Midwest.

That a lot of the confusion in this whole area results from the fact that “fact” has two opposites, opinion and falsehood. Notice that the statement, Illinois is in the Southeastern United States, is, in fact, a statement of fact; it simply happens to be a false statement of fact.  The world is full of such “false facts.”  Notice that the notion of truth/falsity does not apply to opinions; it is beside the point to resort to a verifiability criterion (which is, essentially, a true/false test) to an opinion such as, The Marines should not treat their recruits so harshly.

That credibility, not verifiability, is the criterion that we should use to evaluate the “soundness” of an opinion.  If a speaker asserts that John is the best furniture maker in Gridley, we are likely to attribute less credibility to his opinion than if he goes on to bolster his opinion with some facts like, his furniture sells more, sells for higher prices, and has been given more awards than that of any other furniture maker in Gridley.  An important lesson for the thoughtful reader, and for the convincing writer, is that opinions bolstered by facts deserve/earn greater credibility.  This leads quite naturally to the sort of argumentation that is required of students when in the Common Core State Standards movement and the Next Generation Science Standards: the enterprise of warranting claims with compelling evidence and incisive logic.

 

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