Want to test your ability to tell fact from opinion? Start by picking test maker who can.
Slightly Better Than Guesswork
A Pew Research Center survey asked just over 5,000 U.S. adults to categorize as either factual or opinion each of 10 statements relating to policy and current affairs.
Researchers found that only one quarter of respondents correctly identified all five factual statements, with barely one third correctly spotting all five opinion questions.
About one quarter of respondents in each fact/opinion category correctly identified two or fewer statements.
The survey found that on average, Americans scored little better than random guesswork.
Another finding was a tendency to classify as fact those opinions that aligned with a respondent’s political orientation.
Pew Muffs Its Own Questions
The survey defined a factual statement as one that is capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence. A statement of opinion, on the other hand, reflects the beliefs and values of whomever expressed it.
Here Pew Research itself came up short. It mischaracterized at least two statements out of 10.
“ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017”
The survey labeled as factual the statement that: “ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017.”
This can’t be right. First of all, what constituted ISIS territory is a matter of opinion. Unlike a sovereign state, ISIS had no delimited borders that would objectively mark its its territory. It’s like the difference between New York City and the New York City area.
Moreover, how can “significant” be proved or disproved by objective evidence? First, some quantitative upper and lower bound must be placed on the term based on someone’s subjective judgment.
By analogy, will parents and teenagers agree on what constitutes a “significant” amount of screen time spent on a mobile phone?
“Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient”
The survey labeled as opinion the statement that: “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.”
Note that the statement doesn’t say how wasteful or how inefficient.
The survey recognizes that a factual statement need not be true. But the survey fails to note that such a statement need not be meaningful either.
In this regard, can we identify any human activity or organization that isn’t — to some degree — almost always wasteful and inefficient?
The survey statement may be a platitude, but it is a factual one.
Opinion Presented As Fact
The above represent two obvious errors in Pew’s survey. It’s possible to nitpick other survey questions as well.
Watch popular news channels, and you will often see distinctions between news reporting and opinion blur. To the extent journalism was ever a profession, it seems superseded by “news entertainment.”
News entertainment resembles pro wrestling, except in pro wrestling, the performers know it’s fake.
Are news entertainers knavish, foolish, or simply lazy? Probably some combination of all three.
With regard to the first Pew statement above, opinion could have been converted to fact by stating, “According to the Defense Department, ‘ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017.’”
An editor could have kept the second statement factual while giving it some oomph by re-writing it: “’Nearly ___% of every dollar spent by the U.S. Government is wasted,’ according to ___________.”
Each re-write raises the follow-up questions: “Why should I believe the source? On what did it base its statement?” These are the questions the statement maker should have thought through — and been ready to address — before writing the statement.
Speak With Care; Listen Hard
Pew Research got its own survey wrong. So, maybe we shouldn’t be too tough on ourselves.
But who wants to make a fool of oneself, or to be made a fool of?
Distinguishing fact from opinion matters. We can start by speaking with more care and listening harder. If we want to be right and do right, we must hone these skills until they become habits.