Click here for a translation into Serbian by Branca Fiagic.
Fact: Statement about the real world supported by convergent evidence. Facts can be empirical, analytical, evaluative, or metaphysical.
Opinion: Self-report or attitudinal statement.
False claim: Statement about the real world refuted by the evidence.
Untested claim: Vague, ambiguous, or incomplete claim OR factual claim for which evidence is yet unavailable.
A thorny issue in critical reading involves the ambiguous terms fact and opinion. We ask school children to distinguish facts and opinions, as if it were a relatively straightforward critical judgment. But sophisticated adults have difficulty in using these terms consistently. Moreover, fact versus opinion is a false dichotomy. In other words, facts and opinions are categories falsely assumed to divide all statements one way or the other. What makes one statement a fact and another an opinion?
Let’s begin with opinion. An opinion is a self-report of feelings or personal judgment, e.g., I’m thirsty. Opinions often contain clue words pointing to oneself, e.g., I think, I believe, I feel, in my opinion. Sometimes, however, a self-report is smuggled into a statement with an adjective indicating an attitude or emotion. For example, if I say, “This is a nasty day,” I’m not really describing the objective day in the real world, but rather expressing my emotion that the day is unpleasant, which is equivalent to saying, “I’m not pleased about the day,” a self-report.
There is no need to argue against opinions when they are recognized as self-reports rather than as claims about the real world. It would be ridiculous to argue, “You are wrong–you really are not thirsty,” or “In fact, the day actually is pleasant.” We accept self-reports of emotion or attitude as unassailable because we have no basis for questioning them. For this reason, opinions (self-reports) don’t count for much when someone is trying to persuade you. You can always answer, “I have a different opinion.” Accordingly, it is correct that we are all entitled to our opinions because ordinarily, no one else has sufficient data to question our self-reports. Moreover, since opinions are not claims about the real world, they are usually inconsequential.
Most people only count statements proven by observation as facts. Any other statement is written off as opinion. By implication, only science has facts. But dictionaries define fact more generally as something that can be shown to be true, to exist, or to have happened. Is that a fact? It is. Can you verify this claim by observation? No. Therefore, at least one kind of fact can’t be observed. The definition of fact is a fact because that’s how knowledgeable English speakers agree to use the term. Definitions are analytical facts, verified by linguistic usage, not by observation.
We need an enlarged view of fact as any statement about the real world that can be shown to be true, i.e., that is supported by converging evidence. In the enlarged view, there are at least four kinds of facts: empirical, analytical, evaluative, and metaphysical.
Empirical facts are verified by observation, e.g., The Pacific is the largest ocean. Geographers have measured the oceans, and their convergent conclusion is that the Pacific Ocean is largest. When we think of facts, we think first of empirical facts, the conclusions of convergent scientific observation.
Historical facts, though not available for observation today, are also empirically verifiable through the convergent observations of the past as recorded in primary sources. Thus, the claim that George Washington presided at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 is empirical fact.
In some cases, there is some evidence to support an empirical claim, but that evidence is not convergent. In other words, the evidence is not supported by other observations, giving us inadequate grounds for asserting the claim as fact. For example, the claim that there is other intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is certainly plausible, given observations of our own intelligent life and the theory of evolution. However, we have not collected evidence of other intelligent life in SETI observations using radio telescopes to detect transmissions of information from outer space. Thus, the claim of other intelligent life in the universe is an untested empirical claim, a plausible claim not supported by convergent observational evidence.
Untested claims may be too vague, ambiguous, or incomplete to determine their validity. For example, the claim “This water is too hot” depends on the purpose intended for the water. Water that is 120 degrees may injure a bathing infant, and is thus too hot; water at the same temperature is probably not hot enough to sterilize dishes, and thus is too cool. Vague, ambiguous, and incomplete claims fall into the category of untested claims. Until they are more fully specified, such claims cannot be tested.
In common usage, untested claims are often called opinions, particularly when they are untested evaluative claims (see below for a discussion of evaluative claims). While an untested claim may be explicitly cast as an opinion (e.g., “I think we’ll get another shower this afternoon”), it may be put forth as a claim about the real world (“It’s going to rain this afternoon”). Distinguishing untested claims from opinions depends on recognizing whether the statement is a self-report or a statement about the real world. Practically, we have no basis for disagreeing with opinions as self-reports, but untested claims may require withholding judgment while gathering further evidence.
False claims are contradicted by the relevant evidence. The claim that the world is flat is supported by the visual evidence of our eyes, but contradicted by other convergent evidence, including the observations of astronauts. Whether or not past humans believed in a flat earth with unquestioning conviction, in fact, the earth has never been flat. Thus, the claim that the earth is flat is a false factual claim.
To summarize so far, we have at least two kinds of claims that are neither fact nor opinion: false factual claims and untested claims. The assumption that all statements are either fact or opinion rests on a false dichotomy because false factual claims and untested claims are neither facts nor opinions. In addition, there are other facts that are not empirical facts, including analytical facts, evaluative facts, and metaphysical facts.
Analytical facts are verified by consistency with the rules of a symbol system. For example, 3+2=5 is factual given the rules of arithmetic in base 10. Analytical facts include definitions, e.g., commerce means business, especially large scale buying and selling of goods or services. This is how competent speakers of English have agreed to use this term. Again, most people will allow that analytical statements can be verifiable facts, provided there is convergent evidence of their accurate usage within a symbol system.
Evaluative facts are verified by applying objective standards of value. For example, the claim that theft is wrong may be verified by applying the standard of the right to own property. If we have an objective right to keep or use goods that we have earned, received, or created, then if someone seizes such goods, they do wrong. The violation of a right is a wrong. Obviously, there are special situations and exceptions to be considered, such as a limited legitimacy of taxation as seizure of goods, which would fall outside the definition of theft. Nonetheless, the claim that theft is wrong is a statement about the validity of actions in the real world, and not an opinion.
In common usage, evaluative statements are confused with opinions. For example, it might be claimed that the statement “theft is wrong” is simply a transposition of the opinion, “I don’t like theft.” Consider, however, that evaluating the validity of “theft is wrong” requires a complex process of applying value standards, often weighing the competing claims of different standards. For example, the right to own property is often in conflict with the requirements of government to fund its legitimate activities through taxation. Balancing the conflicting standards of ownership and citizenship requires high-level analysis. In contrast, opinions demand no analysis whatsoever. If people say, “I want a raise” or “I hate taxes,” we have no basis for challenging their self-reports.
Matters of right and wrong can be known objectively–they are not matters of opinion. Though seizing or killing innocent people to terrorize governments into submission is objectively wrong, given the rights to life, liberty, and property, many people do not recognize that terrorism is wrong. The failure of terrorists to recognize that their actions are wrong does not make the claim “terrorism is wrong” an opinion. In general, the number of people who recognize the truth of a claim does not determine its truthfulness. 500 years ago, only a small minority of people recognized the truth that the world is round. They were right, and everyone else was wrong. Similarly, the ignorance of terrorists about the validity of terrorism does not count against the truth of the claim.
Evaluative claims may require expert judgment. For example, suppose an English professor made the claim, “Emily Bronte and Jane Austen are better romance novelists than Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts.” Steele and Roberts likely sell many more books that Bronte and Austen, and legions of romance readers might object to the claim. However, there are literary standards that differentiate great literature from popular fiction. For example, great literature has fully developed characters, complex in their humanity, settings with rich visual and historical detail, a precise vocabulary that avoids hackneyed expressions. Because the ability to apply literary standards requires expertise, we often rely on expert judgment in making evaluative claims about literature. Reliance on expert judgment in evaluative claims is common in many fields. For instance, we rely on jewelers to assess the value of a diamond, on art critics to judge paintings, and on wine experts to judge the quality of a vintage. These experts use trained senses and deep learning to apply evaluative standards. Though only a small number of people are capable of rendering evaluative judgments of diamonds, paintings, and wines, their expert evaluations belong to the realm of fact, not opinion.
Of course, evaluative claims are often false factual claims and untested claims. Many students argue that cheating is not wrong because everyone does it, but its popularity does not count as evidence for the truth of the claim. The claim that we should eliminate most fat from our diets is contradicted by empirical claims in the Atkins Diet that eating fat is not fattening, but supported by claims of other nutritionists that eating fats raises cholesterol and risks heart disease. Whether we should wage war in Iraq depends on a complex configuration of empirical and evaluative facts that are not fully tested. For this reason, we could legitimately argue that whether we should contest Iraq, like many other political decisions that cannot await the leisure of complete analysis, is an untested evaluative claim.
Metaphysical facts are verified by revelatory evidence or self-evidence. For example, the claim that all men are created equal is verifiable by self-evidence. We could make endless empirical observations without finding even two people who are precisely equal in size, beauty, strength, intelligence, or wisdom. Nonetheless, the axiom of equality must be accepted as self-evident in order to have just government. Accordingly, we assume it to be true without external evidence.
Revelatory evidence is the record of the communications of divinity with humanity, found in religious traditions or sacred texts. Again, expert judgment may be required to determine whether revelatory claims are true. Hermeneutic experts use knowledge of ancient languages, history, agreement with other revelatory texts, and evidence about the character of the human authority who transmitted the revelation to examine revelatory claims. As with other kinds of claims, the number of people who believe the claims is irrelevant to judging their truth.
To summarize, statements may be facts, opinions, false factual claims, or untested claims. Facts are statements supported by converging evidence, whether empirical, analytical, evaluative, or metaphysical. Opinions are self-reports. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion because only that person has the inside information to verify a self-report. False claims and untested claims are neither fact nor opinion. Both false claims and untested claims, but not opinions, claim to provide information about the real world. Accordingly, to accept a false claim or untested claim risks error, and error can be dangerous. On the other hand, to reject factual claims is also risky because we fail to benefit from valid information. Mistakenly relegating facts about evaluative or metaphysical matters to the realm of opinion is a common failure of critical thinking.
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Last modified: January 6, 2018