Facts and Opinions are not the same thing: Part 2

Part one from five years ago at the private school where they do not teach untruths about the civil war but still do not understand the difference between objective statements and opinions.

As promised, DC1 ended the semester being tested on the idea that the cause of the civil war was not reaaaaalllly slavery, but state rights.

I read out the reasons for the civil war given by the southerners who withdrew from the union.  They are PRETTY CLEAR that it was about slavery.  On top of that, South Carolina was pretty pissed off about NY getting to keep its state right of not allowing people to be property in its borders so that Southerners couldn’t take slaves with them to do business in NY.

Then DC1 said, “people have a lot of different opinions”.

And that led to a really lengthy discussion about what is an opinion and what is an untrue statement of fact.  DH and I threw around a lot of terms like “subjective” and “objective”.  Also “hypothesis”.  We talked about climate change.

It drives me nuts that people label incorrect statements as “opinions” and don’t seem to understand the difference between objective truths (which are true no matter what we believe, but sadly cannot always be tested) and subjective opinions.  (“Can an opinion ever be wrong?” DC1 asked. “Sure,” I said, “Saying ‘Eggnog is the best drink in the world’ is an example of a wrong opinion.”)  And this is codified in the South through the K-12 system and reinforced by Fox News.  It is in the airwaves.  I hate it.  And I don’t want to have to add it to my stats class, but maybe I should.

Last year I asked my grad students if we should spend some time on what is “fake news” and they all said no, they understood.  This year they’re not as sure.  Last year “fake news” really was fake– spewed out by what we now know were Russian bots.  This year Republicans have labeled reputable news organizations as “fake news” so it’s more confusing.  On top of that, even formerly reputable news organizations like WSJ have been taken over by ideologues so there’s a lot of crud coming out.  (NYTimes has always had a contingent of crud, and NPR started to kind of suck a couple of years ago.)

How do you all deal with the difference?

13 Responses to “Facts and Opinions are not the same thing: Part 2”

  1. A Says:

    I start my intro history survey with a discussion of it. I call it “how to disagree with your professors and still get good grades” so they pay attention.

  2. SP Says:

    I like this distinction, and it is not something I have thought precisely about. Thanks for framing this in a clear way! I mostly just think of untrue facts and opinions not based on anything in the same bucket – things I don’t need to believe.

    The news media is much more confusing to interpret these days, although it is also much more “free”. In theory, the free availability of information should make it HARDER for news outlets to convince us of untrue things. But it seems to be the opposite, or at least, no harder than it always has been.

    I also wish people were able to judge news articles better, and to figure out how to rely on science rather than anecdotes / personal experience to judge if something is likely to be true or not.

  3. purple Says:

    PLEASE: Add it to EVERY CLASS. No one else seems to be teaching the distinction. Teach them to say “show your work in detail” and to ask what the proof is and IF THE PROOF really is proof. I see people citing opinion pieces as proof on social media…..even clearly labeled ‘conspiracy theorists’ cited as proof of their opinions/religious beliefs as factual. And then the translations of translations of Bible held as proof of God’s word despite the known historical facts of when it was written…….
    EVERY CLASS in ALL Grades.

  4. becca Says:

    I don’t know that there are untrue facts.
    There are opinions based on propaganda, and there are facts without context, and there are lies that are presented as facts (i.e. empirical questions for which the data show something different than is claimed).

    “The Civil War was fought over State’s Rights” is an opinion based on propaganda. Well, it’s also a tiny bit a fact without context. If cancer is caused 99% because of cigarettes and 1% because of hair dye, it’s not particularly rational to avoid hair dye.

    “Trump isn’t fat” is an opinion based on propaganda (“fat” is subjective, making this in the realm of opinion, and Trump’s doctor is currently in the news so it’s not hard to figure where this kind of opinion comes from).
    “Trump is medically fine, just a few kilos heavy” is a fact without context (i.e. he is unfit for duty based on ethical and behavioral criteria, so the medical clearance from a physician is factually correct but irrelevant).

    “Trump is 239lbs” is presented as a fact, and I suspect it is actually a lie (hilarious twitter thread of photos of attractive men who are 6’3″ and 239lbs suggests it’s implausible). Well, on some part of the galaxy gravity will be such he’ll be exactly 239lbs, but it’s not on earth (if they were to shift the goalposts and make this claim, it would go from “lie” to “inappropriate context”).

    Steve Inskeep on NPR today: “Fake News is a phrase the president and his supporters have used often. It first gained currency as a description of propaganda promoting the president, but this was one of many cases in which his critics accused the president of doing something so the president accused them of doing it.”
    Emotionally, Trump isn’t more sophisticated than a kid on a schoolyard (“I know you are, but what am I?”). What he is doing well, if your students attitudes are any indication, is controlling the way people think.

    If you thought critical thinking was dying 6 years ago, you are welcome to go right on thinking that. But 6 years ago, I thought those ranting about the death of critical thinking (or the death of truth in journalism, or the death of rigorous analysis, or the death of scientific facts… should I go on?) were mostly The Olds who were themselves engaging in rapid association (mis)characterizations of the young.

    I therefore argue that it’s not getting any more or less difficult to tell fact from fiction. It is simply getting harder to talk about it in a way that makes it clear whether you stand with empirical reality or with propaganda. Thus, we are left with being *unable* to signal to others of our political tribe that we are the tribe of Rigor and Correctness and True Facts simply by using the term “fake news”. In the long run? We will only come out ahead. Because if we truly are committed to rigor and correctness and true facts? We’ll cite our sources, and not rely on the verbal shortcut of “fake news” to signal that we are committed to facts.

  5. chacha1 Says:

    I avoid talking to people.

  6. yetanotherpfblog Says:

    I think sometime around eighth grade I was taught about assessing sources: primary vs. secondary, identifying bias, fact vs. opinion, how to cite evidence, selective data presentation, peer review, etc. This was around the time Wikipedia started becoming popular so our class also talked about the limits of peer review on it and blogs. I assume this is baked into the curriculum at some point in late middle school or high school? I’d definitely want to introduce these concepts outside the context of “fake news.” At least to start. Too much knee-jerk tribalism associated with that term to foster good-faith critical thinking skills.

  7. PerpetualStudent Says:

    I think it’s really really important to discuss in the context of researching sources-I see this all the time in the hospital, when patients turn up and spout off fake science about vaccines** and dismiss our very clear data as ‘fake’ or ‘illegitimate’. I don’t expect my patients and their families to be able to read clinical studies to the same level I do, but it is frustrating that they can’t differentiate between a reputable website (MayoClinic etc…) vs. ‘vaccinesarebad.com’ (is that a real domain?). I think it needs to be taught at elementary schools onwards on how to really verify legitimate sources and the importance of robust research, in all fields.

    **Why I’ll never go into pediatrics

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