Fact or Opinion Study Guide
Get the facts, or the facts will get you. And when you get them, get them right, or they will get you wrong.
Dr. Thomas Fuller, British writer and physician (1654–1734)
What's the difference between a fact and an opinion? Does someone's opinion about a subject carry as much weight as hard facts? In this lesson, we'll examine the difference between facts and opinions and how to make a distinction between accurate, objective information and the kind that's false or biased.
Many people believe that newspapers are good sources for current, factual information. But the last time you were in the supermarket checkout line, did you happen to notice any newspapers with stories about the impending end of the life on Earth, people who've had close encounters with aliens or been "abducted" by them, or an animal born with two human heads? Well, most of us are smart enough to know the difference between those kinds of newspapers, which are considered more entertainment than news, and the prize-winning papers that are widely accepted as trustworthy resources.
But there's more to determining accuracy and objectivity in informational sources than just knowing the difference between hard news reporting and superficial sensationalism. You need to develop a skeptical eye to spot the subtle differences between truthful, impartial resources and those that claim to be truthful and impartial before you can rely on any resource to help you make an important decision to solve a problem. Finding resources is important, it's true, but you have to figure out which you can trust and which you can't.
Fact Versus Opinion
Facts are objective statements that can be proven to be true. If a statement is true, then it's always true. For example, "Hawaii became a state in 1959." That's true because it's simple to verify that Hawaii did, indeed, join the United States in that year. An opinion, on the other hand, is a subjective statement based on personal beliefs. Therefore, it isn't always true for everyone. For example, "Hawaii is America's most beautiful state." You can tell this is based on a personal belief because the subjective word "beautiful" is used and the statement is open to debate. Lots of other people might disagree; they might choose their own or some other state as the most beautiful!
Always remember that a fact can be verified. An opinion may be based on fact, but it's still someone's personal interpretation of the fact. Some experts try to make you think their interpretations are really facts.
Trusting the Source
Not everyone who gives out information is telling the truth. Pretty obvious, you think, and many times you are right. You probably don't take newspaper accounts of alien abductions seriously, even though you see them in print. But what about a documentary that purports to reveal the same thing? Can you be fooled by the delivery of the information, with fancy sets and a well-known actor as narrator, to believing what you might otherwise dismiss?
In order to trust the source of any information, you need to determine the agenda of the person or organization disseminating it. Are they simply trying to relay facts, or are they trying to get you to believe something or change your mind on a subject? It can be difficult to find a direct answer to that question; you can begin to get a clearer picture by looking into the following:
- What are the author's credentials on this subject? Is he or she qualified to write on the topic based on background or education? For some subjects, it is acceptable to use information obtained from a hobbyist, self-proclaimed expert, or enthusiast, if you can verify it elsewhere. However, most factual information should be obtained from a reputable source. And since you need to verify anyway, why not use information, for instance, derived from Yale University's Thomas Hardy Association, rather than from John Doe's personal web page paying homage to his favorite writer?
- Does the author document sources? Where do relevant facts and figures come from? If you are consulting print material, there should be footnotes and a bibliography of the author's sources. On the Internet, you may also find such documentation, or sources may be documented with links to other websites (see the next section "Evaluating Internet Information"). Even documentaries, to use a previous example, should cite sources in their credits.
- Are the sources balanced and reputable? Pages of footnotes are meaningless if they simply indicate that the author used untrustworthy sources, too. Check some of the sources to verify that they are accurate and unbiased. For example, a book on gun laws that relies heavily on material published by the National Rifle Association is not as reliable a source as another book on the subject that uses a wide variety of sources representing both sides of the issue.
- What do others say about the individual writer or the group? A quick way to check is to do an Internet search for the name of the author or group. The results can be revealing, but be sure to read with a critical eye. If you're searching for a person or group with a controversial view, you'll probably find detractors. A few skeptics shouldn't worry you, but pages of negative criticism might.
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