Listening for Facts and Opinions

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

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.

You may know that facts are concrete observations, whereas opinions are thoughts on those observations. But have you ever thought about how people hide opinions in facts? This lesson explains how.

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.

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  • 0:01 Facts vs. Opinions
  • 0:41 Obvious Differences
  • 1:56 Less Obvious Examples
  • 3:30 Facts and Opinions in One
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Obvious Differences

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.

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