Facts or opinions?

“Just stick to the facts.”

“Well, in my opinion…”

Courtroom scene in the 1962 film, To Kill a Mockingbird.

We’ve all heard comments like these. How would you explain the difference between a “fact” and an “opinion”? Books have been written on the subject; this post merely scratches the surface of what is arguably both a self-evident truth and the subject of ongoing philosophical debate. Or is that just my opinion?

In his article on “facts” in the Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Alex Oliver notes that “the existence and nature of facts is disputed,” but goes on to list three interrelated theoretical roles for facts:

    1. facts as the referents of true sentences: in the sentence, “The cat sat on the mat,” the referent, if true, refers to the fact that the cat sat on the mat.
    2. facts as the truth-makers of true sentences: the fact that the cat sat on the mat is what makes the sentence true.
    3. facts as causal relata, such as in the sentence, “Caesar died because Brutus stabbed him.”[1]

More simply, a fact is information that is proven to be true; and an opinion is a statement of judgment, reasoning, belief, inference or conclusion. The character and reputation of the agent offering the opinion may play a role, but the reliability of an opinion is essentially determined by the facts on which it rests.

The following sentence states a fact which may be verified or refuted by referring to reliable and accurate information:

                  Sydney is the most populous city in Australia.

This next sentence expresses an opinion which may or may not be based on facts:

                  Sydney is the most liveable city in Australia.

The term “most liveable” introduces a subjective element to the discussion, and one person’s values, prior knowledge and experience may lead them to contend that Melbourne, or some other city, is the most liveable in Australia. They are neither right nor wrong: they merely have a different opinion.

The difference between a fact and an opinion can be subtle. Compare these two statements:

Every university student needs to take a research methods seminar during their first term of study.

Many university students need to take a research methods seminar during their first term of study.

The first statement is unqualified. Use of terms such as “every,” “none,” “always,” and “never” often indicates that a statement is an opinion. The second statement contains the qualifier “many.” Statements qualified by words such as “many,” “most,” “usually,” or “rarely” are more likely to be facts than opinions. [2] However, in the absence of supporting data we cannot be certain that either sentence is a statement of fact; both may be opinions.

Facts and opinions are sometimes called objective and subjective claims. An objective claim is a statement about a factual matter that can be proved true or false. A subjective claim is an expression of belief, opinion, or personal preference that cannot be proved true or false by any generally accepted criterion. Consider the following subjective claims:

Trout tastes better than catfish.
Touching a spider is scary.
Tennis player Ash Barty is the greatest Australian athlete of this decade.
Hamsters make the best pets.

The following counter-claims are equally valid:

Catfish is much tastier than trout.
Touching a spider is fascinating.
Matildas captain Sam Kerr is the best Australian athlete ever.
Everyone should have a cat.

In matters of opinion, there are no generally accepted standards or methods that conclusively prove a claim true or false. But the fact that a claim is subjective does not imply that it is false.[3]

It may be helpful to consider objectivity and subjectivity not as opposite poles on a spectrum but as different ways of knowing. If this is the case, it is important to engage respectfully in dialogue with those whose subjective claims differ from our own. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valuable; some opinions are better formed, more practical, or more compassionate than others.

On the other hand, the ability to distinguish objective from subjective claims is crucial to the critical evaluation of claims, intellectual honesty, and respectful dialogue.[4] 

In my next post I’ll discuss the difference between knowledge and belief.


This post was written by Rod Benson for The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


References

[1] Alex Oliver, “Facts,” in Edward Craig (ed.), The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2005), 266.

[2] Peter Mather & Rita McCarthy, The Art of Critical Reading: Brushing Up on Your Reading, Thinking, and Study Skills (fourth edn; New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 12.

[3] http://www.butte.edu/departments/cas/tipsheets/thinking/claims.html

[4] Ibid.

Image source: AMC

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