Fact versus Opinion
On January 22, 2017, defending the comments of presidential press secretary Sean Spicer, senior advisor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway stated that Spicer was working with a set of “alternative facts.” Nationwide, journalists and other Americans began to wonder what “alternative” facts are. However, this is not my first encounter with “alternative facts.” For years as an educator I have been grappling with something called the “fact/opinion” problem. Conway’s assertion that facts can have alternatives is just the latest manifestation of a deep problem underlying the thinking of many Americans, no matter their political affiliation.
Years ago, shortly after I began teaching, some colleagues brought to my attention the “fact/opinion problem.” The problem is cognitive difficulty differentiating between a fact and an opinion. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at five statements:
- Women are underrepresented in Congress.
- Black students perform worse than white students on standardized tests.
- Access to abortion is becoming more difficult in the United States.
- Only three percent of the world’s climate scientists think that humans have no impact on climate change.
- Evolution is a theory.
All of the statements concern issues that are politically charged in modern America. Furthermore, some of the language has emotional connotations like “underrepresented,” “worse,” and “abortion.” Other words, like “theory,” are used differently in common vernacular versus scientific disciplines. Such misunderstandings lead a significant percentage of adults to identify at least some of these statements as opinion.
However, all of these statements are factual. Women are underrepresented. Females make up approximately 50.8% of the American population. Nationwide, 24% of state legislators are women (Women in State Legislature). It’s even more unbalanced at the federal level. The 2017 Congress is only 19.4% female (Women in the U.S. Congress). Notice that the statement says nothing about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; that would be an opinion.
Black, Latino, and American tribal students do consistently perform worse on standardized tests than European and Asian Americans (Jaschick). Access to abortion is becoming increasingly difficult due to increasing restrictions at the state level (Phillips). NASA reports that “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” (Scientific Concensus).[i] That’s pretty definitive!
Finally, let’s take on the last statement: “Evolution is a theory.” The first confusion arises in the popular misuse of the word “theory.” People often dismiss the positions of others with the phrase, “that’s just a theory.” What we actually should be saying is, “that’s your hypothesis.” In science, a “theory” is synonymous with “law.” For example, the law of gravity is a scientific theory. Jamie Tanner, professor of biology at Marlboro College in Vermont, explains that “in science the word ‘theory’ refers to the way that we interpret facts” (Bradford ).
People undereducated in science also get hung up on the fact (pun intended) that scientists periodically update theories when new information is discovered. This can make it seem as though a theory is just an opinion that explains something about how the world works based on current understanding. While true, this does not make a theory an opinion! A scientific theory is vetted by numerous people over a lengthy period of time. And scientific theories do illuminate and explain facts about our world. Theories are based directly on facts. While the theories might change if and when new information becomes available, the underlying facts do not change, only the sophistication of our understanding of them. Therefore, we should treat theories such as gravity and evolution like math: not as opinions to believe or disbelieve, but as facts worthy of consideration. It’s not possible to have an “opinion” about evolution any more than it’s possible to have an opinion about math: you either accept the fact or you don’t. If you decide not to accept the fact, you must do so with the recognition that your lack of belief flies in the face of scientific consensus.
The inability to differentiate between facts and opinions is a failure of our educational system. It begins in elementary school. Justin P. McBrayer of Fort Lewis College’s philosophy department found a “troubling” set of statements in his son’s second grade classroom. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
McBrayer goes on to explain that “the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof – two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. … Conversely, many of the things we once ‘proved’ turned out to be false.”
The problem starts with truth claims. A truth claim is any statement that the speaker asserts as “true.” However, this can either be a factual truth claim – e.g., it is “true” that the earth revolves around the sun – or an opinion truth claim – e.g., for me, it is “true” that wine is better than beer. The person with whom I am speaking cannot very well reply, “That’s not true” to either of those statements in spite of one of them being a fact and the other an opinion.
It gets even trickier when we add moral claims into the mix. If I claim that “genocide is wrong,” is that a fact? Or my opinion? If facts must be proven, then what proofs are there that genocide is wrong? Our educational system teaches that “value claims are not facts…any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact” (McBrayer). Furthermore, children are taught that things are either facts or opinions; a statement cannot be both. This leads many people to assert that the claim “genocide is wrong” is “just” an opinion and cannot be proven right or wrong.
Genocide IS wrong. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Here’s the proof. Genocide is undertaken by one hegemonic power trying to assert absolute control over a people and/or region. Genocide eradicates an entire people, consigning their knowledge, history, language, and culture to the winds of history. Thus the entire human species loses the accumulated knowledge of a people. In addition, the ethical system of the planet is based on the premise (provable in its own right) that the gratuitous infliction of suffering is wrong. Genocide obviously undermines the agency of the people on the receiving end. It is a fact that genocide is objectively, not subjectively, wrong. (A lot more can be said on this but I’m trying to be succinct.)
I’ll let McBrayer sum it up for us: “Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not.” Like most other things in life, this is murky and complex. When we divide things into neat categories, we always lose the nuanced reality of a situation. It might be easier to think in neat, little categories but it’s not real. Or true.
The inability to make these distinctions has led many Americans to conclude that almost everything is opinion. Politics and public policy are no longer grounded in factual reality but considered to be a sea of competing perspectives, all of which people believe are equally valid. We have got to stop this type of thinking. Some public policy positions are objectively better than others.
Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer were asserting that more people attended the inauguration of President Trump than attended the protest march the following day. When challenged by objective data, they responded that “alternative facts” supported their position. This is an example of mistaking objective truth for opinions; facts have become just something to have a belief about. But sorry, Kellyanne. You are wrong.
And that’s a fact.
Here are a couple of articles recommended for additional reading on this subject:
Bradford, Alina. “What is a Scientific Theory?” LiveScience. 3.17.2015.
Jaschick, Scott. “SAT Scores Drop: Declines Take Averages Down to the Lowest Point in Years.” Inside Higher Ed. 9.3.2015.
McBrayer, Justin P.. “Why our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts.” The New York Times. 3.2.2015.
Phillips, Amber. “14 States Have Passed Laws this Year Making it Harder to get an Abortion.” The Washington Post. 6.1.2016.
“Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming.” NASA: Global Climate Change. ND.
“Women in State Legislatures for 2016.” National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Women in the U.S. Congress 2017.” Rutgers: Eagleton Institute for Politics.