Fact or Opinion Study Guide (page 3)
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.
Bias is a preference that makes a person prejudiced. We often assume that authors of factual information are without bias. News articles by their very nature are intended to be objective reports of facts. The opinion of the writer shouldn't play a part in the reporting. But just like everyone else, writers have opinions about things and these opinions sometimes creep into their reporting. For example, newspaper and TV reporters are supposed to deliver the facts without giving an opinion, but you can't assume that they do. As a skeptical reader, be aware of word usage, and as a viewer, keep your eyes and ears open. Body language and voice inflection can tell a lot about the reporter's views on a subject.
Some TV news channels stress that their coverage of stories is balanced and fair, but many critics say newscasters are often biased in their reporting. In fact, many critics—and viewers—believe that certain channels are always for the "left" while others are always for the "right."
Watch and read the news from a variety of sources. Check for differences in story coverage. Which spent more time on a celebrity death or divorce than on peace talks or problems in the Middle East? Which skipped the Middle East stories altogether to give coverage to a local politician's hand-shaking opportunity that day? Try to find out more about the people who report the news. Are they former politicians or political speechwriters? Do they have affiliations with special interest groups? What, if any, are their biases?
Evaluating Internet Information
As discussed in the last lesson, anyone can publish on the Internet. It takes very little money or skill to create a website, so the existence and look of a site is no indication that it's a valuable resource. That being said, the Internet really can be a great resource for information—just don't assume that everything you read is truthful and unbiased. You have to learn to differentiate between authentic and bogus information.
Who Wrote It?
The first step in determining if Internet information is truthful and unbiased is to evaluate it in terms of authority. Ask three questions:
- "Who wrote or takes responsibility for this content?" Look for the name and contact information of the author, who may be an individual or an organization—more than just an e-mail address. If no author is listed, you may discover who published it by removing the last part of the URL to the right of the last slash, and then clicking on search. If that doesn't work, remove the next part of the Web address, continuing from right to left until you reach the publisher's page. Does the publisher claim responsibility for the content or explain why the page exists? If not, you can't determine the authority of the site.
- "What are the qualifications of the person or group responsible for this page?" (See the section on verifying an author's credentials earlier in the lesson.) Many people write daily blogs and may not have any know-how on the subject.
- "Can I verify the legitimacy of the person or group?" This should be relatively easy to determine for well-known authors and groups who publish online. For others, you can contact them by e-mail, if an address is provided, and ask about credentials and legitimacy. But this isn't foolproof, so consider any whose legitimacy is difficult to verify as a source of opinion, not fact.
Judge the Accuracy of the Content
There are a few giveaways of marginal content. Review the website for the following:
- Sources of factual information should be clearly listed so they can be verified elsewhere. Do not accept anything as fact that you can't verify at least three times, in three unique locations.
- Factual information should come directly from its source. A statistic from the Wall Street Journal is more likely to be correct if you get it from their website, rather than rely on it as printed somewhere else. Always go to the source website (if one exists) or print material to check facts.
- There should be no grammatical, spelling, or typographical errors. Not only do these errors indicate weak or nonexistent editing, but they can lead to inaccuracies in information.
Tales of a Web Page Address (URL)
- Businesses or others selling or promoting products or services, as well as news organizations, typically end in .com (the "com" means commercial).
- Informational websites, like those of a government, usually end in .gov, .mil, .us, or another country code, such as .au for Australia and .uk for the United Kingdom.
- Educational groups, from elementary schools to design schools to major universities, end in .edu.
- Non-profit organizations and groups that try to influence public opinion, such as the Democratic and Republican parties, end in .org.
- The most potentially unreliable information sources are personal web pages. Most are easy to identify—a tilde (~) in the address is a giveaway. But be careful, some URLs with .edu endings, usually indicating educational sites, also have a tilde and include a person's name. That's because some educational institutions offer free or low-cost web pages to their students, employees, and/or alumni. So be sure to look at the whole URL, not just part of it.
Legitimate websites typically include the date the site was written, when it was launched, and the last time it was updated. Without these dates, you cannot with any certainty use the information found on the site, especially if it is of a factual or statistical nature. If you have dates, ask yourself:
- Is the information current enough for my needs?
- If I need time-sensitive information, are the facts I found stale or do they represent the latest findings?
- If I don't need time-sensitive information, was this information placed on the Internet near the time it occurred?
- Was the page updated a relatively short time ago or could the author have abandoned it?
Use Links to Evaluate a Site
Most websites use links to help you move from their site to other web pages. These links may be used to document sources (think of them as the Internet equivalent of footnotes) or simply to take you to more information about the topic which may be of interest.
If there are links to other pages as sources, ask yourself the following:
- Do the links work?
- Are they to reliable sources or only to other locations on the same website?
- If they take you to more information on the subject, are they well chosen and well organized?
- Do the links represent other viewpoints?
- Do they indicate a bias?
- Are there links to directories? Are they discriminating or do they accept any and all sites?
If other pages link themselves to the page you are considering as a source, ask yourself:
- Who links to the page? (read all points of view if more than one may be found)
- How many links are there? (higher numbers may generally be a good sign)
- What kinds of sites link to it? (do they all represent the same point of view, giving the same information)
Verify Reproduced Information
If a website includes quotes, statistics, or other information purported to be from another source, check it for accuracy. Never assume that simply because the words or numbers are printed, they are correct. Quotes that have been retyped may contain errors, have been deliberately altered, or be complete fakes. The best way to check is to find the information somewhere else, preferably at its source.
For example, Chuck reads a website that claims Earth's human population is decreasing. It cites an expert who is quoted in Scientific American magazine. Chuck should check his public library, which probably has back issues or a subscription to the magazine's online archives that he can search for free.
Keep in mind that material reproduced from another publication, if it is legitimate, will probably include both a link to the original source (if it's online), and copyright information and permission to reproduce or reprint. If there is a link, be certain it is from the original source.
Thinking critically means being armed with accurate information. It's vital to evaluate information to see if it's subjective or objective, fact or opinion, accurate or false, and/or biased. You have to look at the source of the information, or the author(s). Can you trust the source and the credentials of the author(s)? Keep a skeptical eye out for opinion posing as fact, inferior research and documentation, and bias from every source.
When using the Internet, which can be a hazardous place to find information, you have to evaluate any Web page you come across in your research. It's important to find the author and dates for each website, as well as judge the accuracy of its content, and use its links to evaluate even further what you read. Your critical-thinking skills are enhanced when you learn to evaluate the information you receive. Think for yourself! Never assume that something is true without checking it out, and don't take for granted that any source's viewpoint is unbiased.
Never accept statements at face value. Every statement should be carefully evaluated to find the truth. Remember, truthfulness and reasoning aren't the same thing.
Skill Building Until Next Time
- Read a magazine article and note its author. Does the magazine itself tell you anything about his or her credentials? Look up the author on the Internet to see if you can find what expertise, if any, he or she has in the subject.
- The next time you hear a fact on a TV news story, try to substantiate it. Remember the rule of threes: Find it in three more sources before accepting it as fact.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Fact or Opinion Practice Exercises.
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