Facts, opinions, empirical questions

DC1 had a class assignment in which they tried to separate fact from opinion.

Given where we live, and how Fox News is the most popular show out there, it is a valuable exercise.

Except that this one drove me nuts.

I kept wanting to say, “Well, we don’t know if that’s a fact or not… it’s an empirical question.”  I asked if there were true facts and false facts… but that didn’t ring any bells on DC1’s part.

So I explained positive vs. normative, only not using those terms, and I explained empirical questions vs. opinions.  And DC1 got something like 75% on the assignment because apparently false facts count as opinions, or something.

Who knew that this area was such a difficult concept?

Do you think people have trouble with empirical questions vs. opinions?  How would you explain the differences?

26 Responses to “Facts, opinions, empirical questions”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    Empircal–observable by one of the senses, measurable/verifiable/falsifiable, repeatable.

    Opinion–not observable, not capable of being measured, cannot be repeated.

    I don’t understand. Did she do the assignment in class or bring it home to be explained by you and completed at home? Did she study it at school and with you and then test in class?

    Fox news and the bible? I know people who know the bible is true because god spoke to them or god gave them an answer or god answered their prayers or , the best of all–“because the bible said so.”

    So, that is my opinion.

  2. Thomas | Your Daily Finance Says:

    Opinions I would break down just using colors. What is the best color? My son would stay blue, someone would say black and so forth. But in the end no one is right or wrong.

    For Empircal is has to be something that can be verified and measurable.

    Not sure why so many people have a problem maybe they just don’t know the meaning of empircal in the so they get confused as to what is being asked. What grade it this that DC1 did the assignment for?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Second grade. The sheet was on “facts and opinions”… but it wasn’t clear what they were supposed to do with statements that were false or that could be true or false, but we don’t know yet.

      (Empirical question is the jargon I teach my students, along with positive and normative.)

  3. Bardiac Says:

    What would a false fact look like?

  4. J Says:

    If “the world was created in seven days” was marked as FACT, it is time to MOVE.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, it’s really not an opinion…

      But that is one reason we’re doing private school here. They teach evolution! The public schools do not (or rather, the daycare ladies tell me they teach it in one class in one day and as a theory that some people believe, but other people believe the Bible).

  5. bogart Says:

    I think it’s a difficult concept — after all, per the scientific method we’ve got opinions, i.e., beliefs we cannot prove or disprove, and facts, i.e., beliefs we have not yet succeeded in disproving (I know, I know, it’s — somewhat — more nuanced than that, but, simply stated).

    We’re not engaged with your discussion, but my DS is currently puzzling over time particularly WRT the numerous digital clocks scattered around our house. If THAT one says 8:01 and THAT one says 8:03, what TIME is it? The imprecision is maddening (to him). Darned measurement tools (of course most clocks are really just reporting tools, but all the same).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I sympathize with your son’s problem. I would sneak around after he went to bed and change them all to the same time, but then he wouldn’t get to grapple with existential dilemmas and grow his brain.

      • bogart Says:

        It is perplexing. But even were I willing to sneak around (etc.), unless they all pop over at precisely the same instant (give or take a millisecond), he would still notice. He is very interested in this right now and we have, e.g., 3 digital clocks in our bedroom (this makes sense! One is annoying to do anything but read the time from (i.e., settings are annoying), but visible in the dark. One reports indoor and outdoor temperature, and time-telling is really just a side function, but there it is. And one is the alarm clock I like to use when I need one.).

        He is very funny. He gives me running reports of the time, including by-clock variation. Also, DH’s GPS reports both the legal speed limit (usually accurately) and DH’s actual speed, allowing DS to helpfully advise DH anytime he is going so much as a mile over. It’s really very funny, particularly if you are not the target of the implicit advice to slow down.

        Back to time: our recent trip had us on the western edge of our usual time zone, making for very late darkness, an issue if one is camping as we were and wants to enjoy the campfire. We also crossed (and then recrossed on a different day) from one time zone to another, gaining and later losing an hour. I don’t think the whole concept of time (e.g. the arrival of dark) being something that is both real and precise, and also something that we measure and apply imprecisely, has really been grasped, but certainly elements of its existence have been introduced. Some later summer we’ll explore the effects of latitude on lightness/darkness.

  6. Kellen Says:

    So it sounds like the assignment was kind of not teaching what it intended to teach, since a “fact” or an “opinion” are not necessarily the only options – since false facts don’t seem necessarily like an opinion to me.
    Opinion “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty” – so if one of the “false facts” is “the earth is flat,” then this doesn’t seem like an opinion to me.

    • Contingent Cassandra Says:

      This is what I was thinking — that there are other possible categories, and there needs to be, at the very least, an “other” option.

      Even “the sky is green” isn’t necessarily a false fact. There are times when the sky is greenish (which usually means it’s time to take shelter). At other time, it’s black (night) or, as out my window right now, grayish-white (it’s cloudy/rainy here). And, since color is partly a matter of individual perception, there may well be people to whom the sky regularly appears to be green (or to be a shade indistinguishable from green objects — think various forms of colorblindness). But I’m still not sure that makes “the sky is green” an opinion — perceptions and opinions, though often related, aren’t exactly the same thing. That also gets into the question of what is empirically provable — someone with limited vision may or may not realize that others have different perceptions (basically, the instruments they are using — built-in, in this case — are different).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        A very complicated can of worms!

        In high school we did a stupid project in which we measured gravity and got it to be something like 15 or 20 (compared to 9 point something IIRC from later classes). What I learned from that project is that we weren’t allowed to use instruments that were sensitive enough to get correct information.

  7. plantingourpennies Says:

    I’d love to see some of the actual text from his assignment. I had issues with true/false tests when I was a kid because I saw them (IMHO correctly) as absolutes, and if I could think of a counter example, however obscure, I would choose the “wrong” answer. I finally gave up and got better at test taking and interpreting when someone wants a correct answer versus when they want common opinion parroted back. But it is annoying.

    On a somewhat related note – how opinions (or falsehoods) can become facts: http://www.xkcd.com/978

  8. chacha1 Says:

    I don’t remember ever having a class in which I was taught how to distinguish fact from opinion, how to verify or disprove alleged facts, etc. So in my case, because I am just generally contrary and contumacious, my whole life I’ve been a pretty dedicated skeptic and I try – most of the time – to get at least three sources that concur before I accept something as fact.

    I think most people do have trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, and I think it’s due to the fact (HA!) that most people get both their facts and their opinions second- or third-hand.

    And I think the phenomenon of “false facts” is historically very well known, but it used to be the basis on which the uneducated masses operated. Now, it’s the basis on which the ruling class operate.

    • Practical Parsimony Says:

      The educated have spread “false facts” like the fact that the atom is the smallest particle. I cannot imagine what the questions were like for a second grader. What about the “facts” about Pluto? I still hold fast to the “fact’ that Pluto is a planet.

      Plus, some of the educated people I know (MD and PhD) still vehemently defend the date of creation that Bishop Ussher decided using “historical facts” (begats in the bible) when he declared the world was created in 4004 B.C. Much to my relief, Lightfoot made the calculation more precise with his finding of Oct 3, 9:30 am in 4004 B.C. or something like that. When I gently try to discuss this, I am told that it is in the bible, so it has to be true. (Yes, it is in the front of KJV.) I would not allow him to prescribe a multivitamin for me. AND, the head of the science department in education at a university is a firm creationist. Ask me privately if you want to know which university hired this idiot.

      My rant: the prof counted one point off my paper because he did not know the meaning of a word I used: acquisitive. He just had to find something wrong because we hated each other. That was the best he could do to avoid giving me a 100. He had been an elementary school teacher, so we were given precise grades instead of a range. Thankfully, I only had to take the one education course under him.

      The time on my digital clocks drove a friend crazy. He set his watch by some radio program as he sat in the car, waiting for some sort of gong to indicate the time. He asked permission to change my clocks and was not allowed to do so. He always puzzled over how I could really know the time when I did not care if they were two or ten minutes off. He could never understand that I only needed an approximation and sometimes I wanted the clock to read a few minutes earlier than it really was. My imprecision with time facts when I was precise with other measurements (yes, it did matter whether he used a tsp or Tbsp.). However, sometimes even that does not matter.sigh

      When my son was about eight-years-old, he believed that some dish (beef stew?) served in the school cafeteria was dog food. His proof: everyone said so, it smelled like dog food, and no one told him it was not and everyone else thought so, too. Nothing I said could dissuade him from the facts he knew. Even after my talking to him, he finally said he did not care whether it was true or not, that he would never eat it. Aren’t we all a little bit like that?

    • chacha1 Says:

      Not sure where that all related to what I wrote, but it was interesting!

      Re: false facts like “the atom is the smallest particle,” we have to be careful not to tar educationists with falsehood when they are far more likely to be motivated by simplicity. The vast majority of students never study particle physics. They don’t necessarily need to know about leptons and bosons and whatever. But they are relatively likely to study chemistry, so knowing about atoms is essential. And even in a basic chem class, you still learn about protons and electrons.

      I can’t really imagine a high-school science class that would get away with claiming an atom is the smallest particle. Although, given that Texas produces most of our textbooks, never mind.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We learned about quarks in high school… not just at our fancy-pants high school, but the regular publics. Of course, quarks were just being discovered then. Of course, our home state used CA texts. And middle school talked about protons, neutrons, and electrons.

      • chacha1 Says:

        I went to high school 1980-1983 in south Georgia. The only science class I was required to take was biology, and was actively steered away from everything else because hey! I’m a girl! Girls don’t need to know science.

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        “Atom” comes from the Greek and means “not divisible.” For centuries the educated thought this was true. I certainly am not saying the educated spread falsehoods, just that the facts change. You don’t have to study particle physics to know about atoms.

        I was the girl in the early 1960s who took biology, chemistry, and physics in high school. I was the girl in Bible College who defied the preacher/science professor who counted off points because I got a problem right and he counted it wrong. T or F–electrons cannot change valence? I said False and he said True. Electrons can change valence–amount of electrical charge. So, he hated me forever. He was behind the times, had not kept up with the facts. Believe me. I got out of that place! Universities demanded too many science courses for English majors in my opinion.

        I was not speaking of present day scholars. I was saying facts are not as concrete as we would like to believe. Atoms are divisible. However, quarks were discovered and once again, fact is not so. I was horrified when I found out what Texas approves of in textbooks. People here in Alabama approve wholeheartedly. I actually was only involved/interested in the canon in English. I will be thrilled when Silas Marner is not required reading.

  9. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    The American Beverage Association says the report was “an opinion piece, not a scientific study.


  10. First Gen American Says:

    Coincidentally, my older son and I have been talking about wants/needs these last couple of weeks, because he would say things like “I need this new video game character.” Nope, all you actually need is food, clothing and shelter from the elements. Everything else is a want. But even that is confusing because where do you put something like money? My son categorizes it as a need because In most societies, it’s what you use to buy the food, clothing and shelter. But aboriginal cultures don’t have money because they get everything they need from their surroundings and maybe bartering? So, that one’s kind of grey.

    Like the sky example, an observation may only be a fact in certain contexts and not in others.

  11. Neal Says:

    The typical problem is that people fail to distinguish TWO TYPES OF OPINIONS: empirical opinions (EOs) and subjective opinions (SOs). EOs are judgments we make about “external realities” or matters of common judgment (things we can all observe with our senses). SOs are judgments for which we only need to ask the speaker who utters them as they reflect “inner realities”, like matters of emotional response, preferences, taste, etc.

    Now what we call “facts” are EOs that have become widely accepted as true (though of course facts can change with new evidence that reverses the public consensus). EOs always attempt to make “factual observations”, and can be placed on a scale from “verified by strong evidence” all the way down to “unverified by evidence”. Some empirical opinions (e.g., “God exists”, “ghosts exist”, “aliens exist”) are unverifiable either practically or theoretically (depending on how you define God for example).
    Does that clear anything up? Hope so. It’s always tricky speaking about such basic concepts!! Shows you how little precision there is in everyday language.

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