Can you discern factual from opinion statements?

I read an interesting article from Intellectual Takeout titled, “Pew: 3 in 4 Americans Have Trouble Discerning Between Fact and Opinion” by Anne Holmquist that I thought would be good for us to ponder.

A Pew study found that less than 20 percent of first-year college students are able to tell the difference between fact and opinion. That’s bad enough, but the adults didn’t fare much better. 

According to the same study, only one in four adults (26%) could distinguish between factual statements and opinion statements in the news (Pew Research article).

Holmquist also quotes educator and author, Richard Weaver, who says in his book, Ideas Have Consequences, that our inability to discern facts from opinion is from our constant bombardment with information that’s keeping us from discerning the core, root principles which can help us sort our thoughts. Here’s what Weaver said:

“The whole tendency of modern thought, one might say its whole moral impulse, is to keep the individual busy with endless induction. Since the time of Bacon the world has been running away from, rather than toward, first principles, so that, on the verbal level, we see ‘fact’ substituted for ‘truth,’ and on the philosophic level, we witness attack upon abstract ideas and speculative inquiry.”

While the Pew Research was mainly about what we believe to be “facts” in the news, it seems this principle applies to just about every area of our lives. And, as Weaver pointed out, it goes much deeper.

Facts or Truth?

As Sherlock Holmes would say, there are the facts and then there are the conclusions we draw from the facts that may or may not be the truth. It seems we moderns don’t know the difference.

What’s interesting to me about all this is that whether one is a theist or atheist, politically left or right, conservative or liberal, we all have our “facts” that we state like they are dogmatic truth. We may even sincerely believe they are the truth, but we don’t realize that they’re often no more than our particular viewpoint: at best, based on educated conclusions from “experts” (teachers, theologians, scientists, government officials, etc.). And these “expert” conclusions are also swayed by their personal bias.

By the way, I just stated an opinion and presented it like a fact. 🙂

Conversely (in my opinion), people can be just as dogmatic in their subjectivism. They seem to think we can’t know anything for certain. I see this as just as dangerous as rigid certitude to furthering meaningful communication and cultural progress.

While there are certainly many things, even important things, in this world that are subjective, based in inductive reasoning (inference to the best explanation, not provable), nonetheless, there are also truths that are based in deductive reasoning (inferences from general laws that are provable). For example, mathematics and logic utilize deductive reasoning, science and theology may or may not.

I believe it’s helpful if we understand these things, especially about ourselves. For whatever side you fall on with regard to societal issues and worldviews will greatly influence how you read the news, discern facts versus fiction, even what you believe to be true about life itself.

Here’s the thing. Even if what you believe to be true is factually true, it may not be provable (or disprovable). It may just come down to matter of faith (I talked about this in my post, “Faith Matters“). Understanding this just makes us better human beings…but that’s my view.

Take the Quiz!

Okay, back to the article. Can you tell the difference between factual and opinion news statements? Take the Pew quiz and find out! Start here…

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 40 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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29 Responses to Can you discern factual from opinion statements?

  1. Nan says:

    Just thought I’d mention … I took the test and answered all the facts and opinion statements correctly (5 or 5 and 5 of 5). Perhaps what I present in blog discussions isn’t so far off after all. 🙂

    • Mel Wild says:

      Very good. 🙂 While I would differ from your worldview on what I would see as subjectivism, I DO think you have a good handle on factual versus opinion statements. And you’ve been more fair than some of the others which is why I read your blog. We would also probably disagree on what is the truth based on those facts.

  2. KIA says:

    Just took the test. I got 5 out of 5 on both tests too. That means I identified factual statements from opinion correctly on all 10 questions. How did Mel do?

    • Mel Wild says:

      Good. I got the same result. But just to be clear, what this quiz shows is how we discern facts from opinion with statements in the news. As the Pew article said, the more educated we are in this regard, the more likely we are to know the difference. While this is a healthy perspective, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we have the truth. The quiz wasn’t designed to tell us that.

      • KIA says:

        But it would generally indicate that we are able to tell the difference between fact and opinion. Fact and fiction or fact and faith based beliefs would obviously be a different test. Therefore the quiz you referenced may actually be irrelevant in the long run when talking about determining truth from error.

        • Mel Wild says:

          “But it would generally indicate that we are able to tell the difference between fact and opinion.”

          Yes. That’s why I included it.

          “Therefore the quiz you referenced may actually be irrelevant in the long run when talking about determining truth from error.”

          Not totally irrelevant but I agree with you that it, by itself, may not get us to the truth. And I’m not sure there is an objective test for some things that may be true. They are not provable or disprovable. But I do think discerning opinion from facts is a good starting place.

  3. misterkiddo456 says:

    As I received 5/5 on both fact and opinion I can’t help thinking readers of this blog have an advantage taking the test. They have a foreknowledge of what the questions are designed to detect and may be thinking more cautiously than they would if someone asked them these questions without any context or disclosing the purpose of the study.

    Anyway, I do think those are scary results of a survey. I see this playing out in most of the general discussions around us these days. People seem to pretty quick to take a lot of opinions from popular and social media and then attempt to create what they think is a “factual” worldview out of it. The problem being that they never built a foundation for that world view… they just cobbled together 3rd party opinions.

    This coupled with the fact that currently the very popular identity politics inherently involves people tying their identity to their political views. This is pretty dangerous because whenever people don’t have a foundation for their identity it usually seems to result in them becoming pretty violent whenever anyone challenges them. They have no factual defense and it is their identity so when you challenge their standing in their own identity, in their eyes, you aren’t attacking their political view you are attacking/threatening the core who they believe they are. I think that about sums up the current toxic atmosphere of where we are today in public/social media discourse.

    • Mel Wild says:

      “I can’t help thinking readers of this blog have an advantage taking the test. They have a foreknowledge of what the questions are designed to detect and may be thinking more cautiously than they would if someone asked them these questions without any context or disclosing the purpose of the study.”

      That’s a really good point. The results are skewed here because we are forewarned. That’s why I didn’t put what I got for a score in the original post.

      Anyway, I do think those are scary results of a survey….

      I agree! It’s a MeToo social-media-driven herd mentality. To use Girard’s theory, it’s mimetic desire at its worst. Something I’ve observed from both believers and non-believers is how swayed we are by other’s opinions stated as facts rather than finding out the truth for ourselves. Our convictions are based on what others have told us, books we’ve read, instead of experiential knowledge (which will relate to my next post). And we pick which “facts” we will embrace as “truth” based on our circumstantial inclination (to believe or not believe) and form our conclusions based on those inclinations rather than actually being open to the truth.

      “This coupled with the fact that currently the very popular identity politics inherently involves people tying their identity to their political views. This is pretty dangerous because whenever people don’t have a foundation for their identity it usually seems to result in them becoming pretty violent whenever anyone challenges them.”

      Another astute observation! When we identify ourselves by our ideology instead of our intrinsic worth as a person, we will often resort to violence in order to protect that counterfeit identity. It’s a very insecure and dangerous place to be. This is what I was talking about before, that we actually don’t like the idea of a pluralistic society, even though we may think we do. By our actions, we demonstrate that it scares us because what we really want is for everyone to be us so we can feel safe around them…meaning, we don’t have to change. 🙂

    • Anthony Paul says:

      Excellent comments…. I too got a perfect score but I couldn’t help feeling that if I hadn’t been forewarned about the object of the quiz I would not have done nearly so well. IMO, the article was excellent because it taught me something valuable about the way I tend to form my own opinions. All too often, I consider information as factual if I like the person offering the information and if I happen to agree with it in the first place. Thanks to both you and Mel for some great insights.

  4. Fun stuff, Mel! Reminds me of the old Dragnet and Sgt Friday always saying, “just the facts ma’am.” (If you want to get technical about “facts” here however, Snopes actually went and ruled that one false, which is somewhat funny. We can’t even seem to trust our fact checkers to check facts properly without inserting their own opinions!) What Jack Webb actually said was, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

    Something I often notice, many people today do not differentiate between “faith and false” or “fiction and false.” That fascinates me in a literary sense because to lose that ability it to lose access to a wealth of wisdom. Like my strong ability to distinguish facts from opinion actually comes from Dragnet, a work of total fiction itself.

    • Mel Wild says:

      “Something I often notice, many people today do not differentiate between “faith and false” or “fiction and false.”

      Amen. Great point. Faith does not mean false. And besides fiction, there is truth in mythology. Of course, I believe there are many true things that require faith.

      You hit on what I will be talking about next time! Truth can be found in beauty and art and even fiction, and lies can be forged from cold hard facts.

  5. John Branyan says:

    A growing number of people not only can’t tell the difference between fact and opinion, they don’t care about the difference. Relativism makes your opinions equal to my facts. History is less important than how we “feel” about it. As soon as you are labeled “abusive” or “hateful”, your expertise is irrelevant. Critical thought is very rapidly becoming a hate crime.

    • Mel Wild says:

      “A growing number of people not only can’t tell the difference between fact and opinion, they don’t care about the difference.”

      As Misterkiddo456 alluded, it’s pretty scary how this morass of relativism is rampant among millennials, which the Pew study seems to bear out.

      It also rather ironic to me that the same people who accuse Christians of being led by feelings instead of the facts are the ones whining about us using logic and reason! They only show they are led just as much by their own subjective (anti-Christian) feelings while denying facts that don’t fit their conclusions. As you said, they don’t care.

      Of course, even the facts don’t mean we have the truth, and naturalists have an addition problem here which poses a philosophical conundrum. There’s no logical reason they should ever trust their cognitive faculties if they embrace Neo-Darwinism since, as atheist John Gray put it, “The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.”

    • Mel Wild says:

      “Critical thought is very rapidly becoming a hate crime.”

      Yes, anyone who doesn’t dance to the music of the cultural groupthink are more and more likely be accused of hate crimes. In that there is a growing intolerance. But critical thinking can be as hateful and vitriolic as you want if it’s aimed at Christians or religions. No hypocrisy there!

  6. Dylan Black says:

    Another 10/10er over here (but I agree with MisterKiddo that we were primed ^_^ [despite getting it right, I also thought the ISIS losing a “significant” portion of land was a bad question, since “significant” depends on the context and we had none ^_-]).

    Conversely (in my opinion), people can be just as dogmatic in their subjectivism. They seem to think we can’t know anything for certain. I see this as just as dangerous as rigid certitude to furthering meaningful communication and cultural progress.

    I was a little taken aback by this little paragraph here. Perhaps it was hyperbole, but I would think that most people of the “can’t know for certain” persuasion would still advocate for best guesses, rather than stalling out. Again, perhaps I’m being too harsh on your language and you mean something different than I’ve read.

    Good post – I love this topic!

    • Mel Wild says:

      “Perhaps it was hyperbole, but I would think that most people of the “can’t know for certain” persuasion would still advocate for best guesses, rather than stalling out.”

      Maybe elaborating on my statement will help. I’m not talking about people who aren’t certain about things, and I certainly agree that some things are unprovable, even if they are true. That would be a healthy stance. But subjectivism, by definition, is the philosophy that knowledge is merely subjective and that there is no external or objective truth. So, “stalling out” is precisely what I get from subjectivists. They simply wave the subject away and say we can’t know something, even when there is deductive proof. Pure subjectivism, in my opinion, is an incoherent philosophy because of how it confuses knowledge making it useless.

      • Dylan Black says:

        Okay, that does clear it up a bit. I don’t know that I’ve run into many of those folk, but I’ve heard tale of them. Subjectivism needs to lead to a sort of pragmatism in order to avoid the uselessness you describe. That’s where I’ve seen most people who identify as subjectivist go and they fall more in the category you described as not being certain about things, I think.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Mel Wild, thanks so much for the post.Much thanks again. Really Cool.

  8. Ben Kilen says:

    Cherry picking 101:

    Class let us begin, in my opinion most theists, similar to any political party, most children model the beliefs of their parental units.

    They take the parents paradigm as fact because it usually comes from an authoritative position. We (us charismaniacs) have learned to quote 1 Peter 2:24 any time a sickness arrives. We have also learned that, even though, the sickness has past on via natural occurence, we call it a miracle, we declared and believed into a concrete happening (if only in our minds).

    Some may learn to think for themselves, yet many will stay the course.

  9. Pingback: When we’ve cut out our souls | In My Father's House

  10. Took the test as well… 5 of 5 and 5 of 5. And I agree with KIA…

    …the quiz you referenced may actually be irrelevant in the long run when talking about determining truth from error.

    And I agree with you Mel about…

    Not totally irrelevant [or relevant] but I agree with you that it, by itself, may not get us to the truth. And I’m not sure there is an objective test for some things that may be true.

    Very rarely (perhaps never) is there one single silver-bullet that reveals truth, lies, facts, or degrees of plausibility. Most of the time, to increase equitable accuracy, we must persistently accumulate a wide spectrum of data no matter its sources. Even new data! IMO, the gullibility for “opinion” comes from an observer’s or investigator’s acute laziness, maybe bias too. Truth and accuracy DEMANDS the marathon distance.

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