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Distinguishing Fact from Opinion Help

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Updated on Sep 2, 2011

Distinguishing Fact From Opinion

Just as you learned the value of a logical argument supported by emotional conviction and based upon facts and hard evidence in Emotional Versus Logical Appeals Help, it is equally important for you to differentiate fact from opinion, specially in the books and material that you read. Remember, your paper will be supported by facts, not opinions. How do you gather as many facts as possible and learn to distinguish them from opinions and an author's personal bias? This lesson will help you become both a critical reader (as you learn to evaluate your own sources) and a critical writer (as your influence your reader and build your case through the steady accumulation of facts).

You may be asking yourself, "What are the differences between facts and opinions?" More importantly, why does it matter? First, it is important to remember that you are writing an analytical paper that is a work of nonfiction. Nonfiction is always based upon the stories of people who have lived or are living, specific data based on proven statistics, and historical events. On the other hand, fictional material (creative writing of any type) may be based on actual events, but the author's imagination takes liberty with the content, shape, or form. Remember that facts are usually:

  1. events known for certain to have occurred, and have been recorded.
  2. statistics known for certain to have been proven.
  3. people or places known for certain to exist.
Opinions, on the other hand, are:
  1. events believed to have occurred, or interpreted according to a particular viewpoint.
  2. statistics believed or hoped to be true, but which have not been unquestionably and scientifically proven beyond a doubt.
  3. people or places rumored or thought to have existed.

Learning to Distinguish Bias

One of the problems and uncertainties that comes with reading many books from a wide variety of authors is learning to determine whether someone has presented you with an indisputable fact, or has just given you his or her particular take or bias upon events. A bias is a particular opinion or slant—a judgment on the part of the writer based upon his or her own personal viewpoint. When you gather evidence for your paper (which you will later document for your reader in the form of footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citations), always check to make sure that the facts you are including in your work are legitimate. Many statistics and data are documented with a footnote or endnote, indicated by a number at the end of a particular sentence or quote. This footnote or endnote informs the reader that the writer got his or her material from a legitimate source and a specific location. Some writers also use parenthetical citations, which contain the author's last name, the page number( s) on which they found the information, and sometimes the title of the work, if they have used more than one source by the same author. The end of the book or article will contain a bibliography or list of works cited, arranged alphabetically by author. In order to check a particular fact or quote that the author has cited parenthetically, simply look for the author's name in the bibliography in order to find the title of the work.

A fact that is not well known, might be disputed, or is controversial should always be accompanied by a footnote, endnote, or parenthetical citation. Similarly, all statistical information should also be documented so that the reader can look up any important material and verify its accuracy. For example, an author of a best-selling biography of President John F. Kennedy might write:

Example A

The day before his assassination, President Kennedy employed two additional bodyguards. This fact was kept secret from his advisors.1

This statement, complete with a footnote reference, allows you to check and verify the sources of this information. Footnotes at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the book in the endnotes, allow the reader to check the source of this fact. The author, following correct footnote procedure, would have recorded his or her statistic at the bottom of the page in the following format:

1Charles Dobson, My Life with J.F.K.: Confessions of a Former Bodyguard. (New York: Towson Press, 1998) p. 126.

This footnote should allow you as the reader to consult that book and find the factual material the author cited. The same format will be used for endnotes, which appear at the end of the book or article. It is highly unlikely that you will check each and every factual or footnoted statement made by an author, particularly if you are reading dozens of books. However, it is very important to make sure that any information you are using as fact is backed up by proper documentation. What if the biography you were reading on JFK presented the same information in this way:

Example B

There were many rumors that J.F.K. employed two additional bodyguards secretly before his assassination, and I'm sure that he did.

How do you know if this statement is true? The author does not state it as fact and does not give the reader any additional sources to corroborate its accuracy. Did it happen or not? Is it merely the author's own personal opinion or bias? Just as you have learned to build your argument carefully and support your conclusions with facts, the same holds true for the works you are consulting. Remember, all authors have feelings and opinions, and almost all authors want you to be persuaded by their work; otherwise, why would they bother writing books? However, beware of those writers who try to present their opinions and biases as facts. If a book or work does not provide you with specific references in order to check the accuracy of its information; do not use the material as factual evidence. Writers should try to clarify a reader's feelings, not shape or distort them.

Again, think of the task of journalists. A journalist's job is to record and present events, not to offer personal opinions. Opinions in journalism are reserved for specific pages only—the Editorial and Op-Ed page. Even on news shows, TV announcers do not give their personal opinions unless these segments are specifically designated as "commentaries." In fact, a network or station is quick to make an announcement that indicates, "The commentaries of Mr. Thompson do not necessarily reflect the views of the network." For example, a journalist writing about President Bush and his actions towards a current or pending piece of legislation would not say:

Example A

Washington, D.C.—Once again it was rumored that President Bush is downright afraid of signing the Fair Housing Bill. Clearly, he is too frightened to take any kind of constructive action.

Instead, a professional reporter would write:

Example B

Washington, D.C.—Today, President Bush did not sign the Fair Housing Bill. While there has been speculation about his action, White House officials maintain that he will review the bill later this week.

The first account (Example A) is based on opinion, hearsay, speculation, bias, and gossip. These are not legitimate means of gathering, recording, and presenting material. On the other hand, the second account presents the facts and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

Summary

Distinguishing fact from opinion or fact from fiction is important. Be alert when you read and when you write. Is an author convincing you by using his or her data or is the author trying to persuade you by manipulating your opinion? How are you going to convince your reader? Remember, any statistics or data that are not supported with specific references cannot be considered known facts and should not be used as evidence in your paper.

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