Wednesday, September 03, 2008

How to Tell a Fact From an Opinion

It's no secret that online dialogue on the Internet can often get pretty heated. Studies have been done suggesting that it's a side-effect of the anonymous nature of so much of that dialogue. One way in which people often try to support their arguments is by noting that some of what they say is an opinion. An opinion, it is argued, is the person's own feelings on a matter, and is therefore unassailable by one's opponents. Naturally, this line of reasoning can only work so far. An internet poster who posts only incendiary opinions is still to be avoided, even if that person acknowledges that it's all that person's opinion.

The alternative, of course, is when one argues that something is not simply an opinion, but is being viewed objectively on the basis of facts. Facts, it is assumed, form a basis for discussion that all readers can agree to.

If only it were so easy.

All too often, one can argue that something is a fact when it isn't really. I got into a bit of an argument with someone on a Transformers board last week when he argued that some toys were "objectively" better than others. As I attempted to point out to him, the word "better" is, itself, a word indicating an opinion (as is the word "good," which was also used a lot in this discussion). We went around the bend on this for a while, not really getting anywhere. It is true that an opinion can be formed on the basis of objective data (for example, a toy that has greater articulation can be said to be a better toy than one that has more limited articulation), but that doesn't make it less of an opinion. He never did fully understand my point, and we ultimately simply had to drop the argument for the sake of board collegiality.

When studying for certain types of standardized exams, one is taught how to recognize statements of "opinion" from statements of "fact." One way is through the use of "opinion markers" such as I described above (with "better" and "good"). Statements of emotion are usually cited, as well: "Mary is happy" is considered an opinion (but see below). Another important tool is the verifiability of a statement. Is it theoretically possible to prove whether a statement is right or wrong? (In scientific terms, you actually can't ever prove a hypothesis "true." Only if it's false. But that goes a bit beyond the scope of this discussion.)

It's understandable that one would wish to bolster one's argument by whatever tools are at hand, and so the appeal to facts and objectivity is a natural one. This is as true in politics as it is in toy discussions. But when those facts aren't as objective as one makes them out to be, it can be a little disconcerting. Last night, First Lady Laura Bush claimed to point out some "facts" about her husband's presidency:

America is in the middle of a heated campaign. Recently, you've heard a lot of politicians offer a lot of opinions. But you haven't heard very many facts. So I thought I'd share a few with you tonight. In honor of our nominee, let's call it a little "straight talk."

Here is the full text of her remarks (my source has the remarks as prepared ahead of time, so what she actually said may differ in a few minor details, although having heard the speech last night, I'm not thinking the differences will be too great. I have to confess to not finding as many facts as I felt like she was promising. She seems to indicate that her "straight talk" would be free from opinion, but there are clearly opinions in here. Here's what I found, going paragraph-by-paragraph through the rest of her statement until the point in which the President begins his own remarks from the White House (and I'll try to be generous):
  • On an issue that's close my heart, President Bush initiated the most important education reforms in a generation, holding schools accountable and boosting funds for reading instruction. Today, student achievement is rising across the board, and test scores for minority students are at the highest they've ever been.

    "Most important" is definitely debatable, and not something that should be considered a "fact." For the first sentence after "facts" were promised, that's not a good start. And the extent to which accountability is held and achievement has risen is hard to pin down, even "objectively," but the ideas that 1) Fund were boosted, 2) test scores for minorities are "the highest they've ever been" are at least verifiable statements, even if that last one does strike me as potential hyperbole. I'm sure that FactCheck.org will weigh in on whether or not it's actually true soon enough.

  • We all know how important it is for America to have judges who respect the Constitution. Our whole nation can be proud of the two newest members of the Supreme Court -- Justice Sam Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

    The question of whether or not particular judges "respect the Constitution" (let alone the question of importance, however much we agree that it is) is definitely a debatable point. Pride is certainly not an "objective" matter. Indeed, the only fact I can pull from this paragraph is the fact Alito and Roberts are, indeed, the two newest members of the Supreme Court.

  • Many in this arena, and many across our nation, are people of faith -- people who have answered the call to love your neighbor. The President has empowered faith-based and community charities to partner with government to help those in need. Engaging these groups is successful policy. One way we know is this: Across the country, 35 governors from both parties have started faith-based and community initiatives of their own.

    It is indeed a fact that many people (both attending the Republican convention and across the nation) are "people of faith," but that's hardly noteworthy in this context. Whether or not they've "answered the call to love your neighbor" is far more difficult to prove. I'll grant as "fact" that the President has "empowered faith-based and community charities," but to call such a polity "successful" is a matter of opinion, even if the statement about the number of governors starting similar programs is indeed verifiable (I'm choosing to take such statements as "fact" for the sake of argument, although as I pointed out earlier, FactCheck.org and others will demonstrate whether or not such facts really are).

  • And here's another inspiring statistic. When my husband took office, fewer than 50,000 Africans suffering from AIDS were receiving the medicine they needed to survive. Thanks to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, that number is now nearly 2 million. (Applause.) You might call that "change you can really believe in."

    This statement I'm willing grant as fact, at least if we don't look at that last sentence. That's unapologetic opinion, being a turn of phrase intended to poke some fun at Obama's campaign. It's not an unfair poke, it's just not "fact."

  • George is using America's influence to lift up lives around the world. Millions of children are protected from malaria by mosquito nets the American people provide. In Afghanistan and Iraq, 50 million people are now living in freedom. And let's not forget President Bush has kept the American people safe.

    I found this paragraph hard to find actual "facts" in. That millions of children are using the mosquito nets (thus are being protected from malaria) is safe enough. But the extent to which this is the President's doing, and the extent to which it is a "use of America's influence" is debatable, as is the number of people "now living in freedom" (how do you define freedom? Do you count all the people in both nations, even those still living in regions that remain unsafe due to insurgent activity, and if not, how is "safety" defined? Since Mrs. Bush "50 million" estimate seems about 10 million short, I'm guessing that she's got some criteria, but just what is it?). And I have a definite argument with the statement that Bush has "kept the American people safe" given the number of terrorists created since the invasion of Iraq. I do not accept the apparent lack of a successful attack on America soil (that is a fact I don't deny) as sufficient evidence that we've been "kept safe," because to do so requires the acceptance of the argument that the attacks that have been planned (also something I consider "factual") would have been successful had pre-9/11 safety measures (or whatever post-9/11 measures a non-Bush president might have taken, something it's impossible to know for certain) been in place.

  • We'll always be grateful to the men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform of the United States. To the military families who know the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return: America honors your service, and we give you our thanks.

    Given that this paragraph opens with a sentence containing a clear "opinion marker" ("grateful"), I'm wondering if Mrs. Bush isn't actually trying to give facts any more, but I'll see this to the end. It is certainly difficult to argue that military families don't know about the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return, but one seldom uses statements of emotion as "fact," even if it is a fact that those emotions are indeed held, because such statements are, by nature, unverifiable.

  • In two months, the American people will choose a new President. No one knows the job -- what the job requires better than the man who holds this office. Ladies and gentlemen -- my husband, and the President of the United States, George W. Bush.

    The election is in two months: a clear fact. But one could certainly argue whether or not another person (a previous president, perhaps?) knows the job of the presidency better. I can't call such a statement a "fact," even if one would be hard-pressed to argue against her.

Straight talk? Well, my bias is probably clear by now, but you can decide for yourself. I've moved into far more contentious territory than I'm comfortable with on this one, so although I will continue to accept comments here, I'd like to remind everyone that I do moderate such comments, and will reject any comments that seem to cross the line.

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