Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
Facts vs. Opinions
By now, you've probably heard the difference between facts and opinions. A fact is a concrete, indisputable observation. For example, saying that some houses are built partially out of wood is a fact. Meanwhile, an opinion is an individual's or group's thoughts on an observation. Saying that wood houses are better than concrete houses is an opinion. However, it is often very difficult to tell the difference between the two, especially when listening. This lesson will start with obvious differences, then move on to less obvious examples, and finally end up with some really sneaky ways that people try to alter the thoughts of others by mixing facts and opinions together.
As you saw earlier, there are some really obvious instances where a fact and an opinion differ. Anything that renders an emotional response, especially if something is perceived as being better than something else, is often an opinion. For example, a lot of people say that the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is the best ice cream flavor imaginable. That is certainly a heart-felt claim, and for many people, it is as powerful a truth as anything else they are likely to encounter in their lives. However, this is an emotional response. For every person cheering on chocolate chip cookie dough, there is someone else cheering on cookies and cream. Or mint chocolate chip. Or even vanilla. What we can say that would be factual is that there are certainly a great many people who love chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
Another quick test to see if something is obviously a fact or an opinion is to observe it happening. If I'm standing on a lake and say that it is the best spot on the whole lake for fishing, then that's an opinion. However, if I show systematic test results where I have tried every other fishing spot on the lake under different conditions and all of that information points to this spot being the best place on the lake to fish, then, in that case, I have a much stronger claim!
Less Obvious Examples
When discussing facts or opinions, many people will use statistics. Statistics are numbers that can be used to show facts, and are very often facts themselves. For example, I can show with statistics that the United States has the third-largest population of any country in the world. On the other hand, I cannot show through statistics that the United States is the happiest country on earth of all time. That would be an opinion.
And yet, people still try to use statistics as facts when they are really opinions. Now it's hard to convince numbers to lie, but it is much easier to do so if you ask the numbers to tell a different story. For example, if I asked you to provide a straight yes or no answer to if you think that a politician is doing a good job, I'd likely get different numbers than if I asked someone to rank a politician on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best and 5 being the worst. This is because people in the middle have to make a clear decision on the first question, whereas they get more leeway during the second.
Sometimes, it's even harder to tell the difference. Take surveys that claim to show the world's best country, or the world's happiest country. These very often use factual statistics, so they must be facts themselves, right? Not necessarily. The method in which these numbers are combined is subjective, meaning that someone gets to come up with the relative weights themselves. As a result, the answers differ wildly, with each result essentially being based around the opinions of the person who designed the survey.
Facts and Opinions in One
Finally, there are many examples in which facts and opinions are mixed into one statement. While you may think that I'm talking about opinion polls, I'm not. I'm talking about the media. Media bias occurs when the opinions of the media leak into otherwise factual news. Every time we watch or read the news, we are being bombarded with opinions. Now I'm not going to get bogged down in the fight between certain networks for being more or less politically biased than others, although I will put it like this -- the people doing the interviews are people, and you're much more likely to be nicer to someone who you agree with than someone you don't. Instead, I want to look at a much more global view. In the American media, the vast majority of outlets will do their best to make America look as good as possible. Now this doesn't always mean making the American government look good, but the country itself will be made out to look particularly, well, right. Meanwhile, the BBC will make British people look good, Le Monde will make the French culture look good, and Al Jazeera will criticize every society in the world except Qatar, their homeland.
In this lesson we look at the difference between facts and opinions. A fact is something irrefutable, whereas an opinion is one person's thoughts on something. These can be obviously different, as in the case of opinions on favorite flavors of ice cream. Sometimes, they can be more hidden, such as using statistics to influence opinions and opinions to influence statistics. Finally, they can often be so wrapped up in each other that it is hard to tell them apart, as in the case between biases in media sources.
Listening for Facts and Opinions Vocabulary & Definitions
- Fact: A fact is a concrete, indisputable observation. For example, saying that some houses are built out of wood is a fact. One way to identify a fact is to ask yourself if you can observe it happening.
- Opinion: An opinion is an individual's or group's thoughts on an observation, such as saying that chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is the best flavor. Opinions often render emotional responses and perceive something as being better than something else.
- Statistics: Statistics are numbers that can be used to show facts and are very often facts themselves. People often use statistics when talking about facts and opinions.
- Media Bias: Media Bias occurs when the opinions of the media leak into otherwise factual news. When facts and opinions are mixed together, it can be difficult to tell them apart.
As the lesson expands your knowledge, you might try out your ability to:
- Differentiate between facts and opinions and identify examples of each
- Explain how facts and opinions can be influenced by statistics and media bias
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