Facts can be proven true or false. Opinions can only be supported to varying degrees. Knowing the difference helps you stay well-informed and communicate productively.
Many discussions break down because people can't distinguish between facts and opinions. They collapse everything into the same category, giving everything from conspiracy theories to rigorous peer-reviewed studies the same "weight" in their judgment and rhetoric.
What does equal weighting of facts and opinions look like? Whenever people disagree about a belief, a policy, or a course of action, someone in the disagreement often resorts to saying something like, "We’re all entitled to our own opinion and perspective."
Someone else in the discussion then wonders why the facts presented earlier were equated with opinions and why their fact-based opinion was put on the same level as a claim without basis or evidence. What kind of perspective is that?
Different opinions and perspectives exist on virtually every topic, of course, but some opinions have more supporting facts and evidence than others. Thus some perspectives are more valid than others.
Some topics are so complex and difficult to study that the facts themselves may be uncertain or there may be contradictory evidence. Yet some facts may be more established than others, and some evidence may be stronger or weaker.
To form good judgments and communicate well, we must be able to distinguish fact and opinion as categories and in terms of quality.
The Basic Difference Between Fact and Opinion
Facts can be empirically tested, checked against records or observations, and ultimately proven or disproven.
Opinions present value statements that can’t be definitively proven; they can only be supported or unsupported to varying degrees by facts, evidence, and observation.
We can check the accuracy of a climate change model against real-word observations and determine that claims about the model’s reliability are facts or not.
We can’t check value statements like “Nuclear energy should be subsidized“ because they come down to personal values, beliefs, and attitudes about the known facts.
But not all opinions, or value statements, are created equal.
”We shouldn’t do anything about climate change” may be an opinion, but it’s not supported by the facts about climate change and its impacts. “We should reduce carbon emissions to address climate change” is a value statement with a mountain of facts behind it.
The Complicated Difference Between Fact and Opinion
But, you ask, how do I know that’s a mountain of facts instead of a molehill of opinions? What about contradictory facts? What do I believe?!
As I said earlier, some facts may be more established than others. Some topics may be so complex or difficult to research, like human behavior or how genes work, that researchers may be uncertain or may disagree about the facts and how to interpret them. Knowledge progresses as different researchers accumulate data that points toward similar or identical conclusions, or what we come to call facts.
For example, literally many thousands of studies from thousands of researchers have observed dramatic increases in CO2 emissions since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Scientists predicted many different effects of CO2 emissions, and all of those predictions have come true.
Similarly, some evidence may be stronger than other evidence. There’s evidence that the earth goes through natural cooling and warming periods, but that’s just one set of evidence against many, many sets of evidence pointing toward humanity’s CO2 emissions driving current global warming.
Moreover, it’s weak evidence for the opinion that we shouldn’t do anything about climate change. The problem isn’t climate change per se but the rapid rate of climate change. Previous natural climate changes are irrelevant to what we’re experiencing now.
So, a fact can be tested, checked, proven true or false, and well-established or barely hanging on. An opinion can be well-supported with solid facts and strong evidence, or it can be poorly supported with tenuous facts and little or weak evidence.
In Become Your Own Fact-Checker, I discuss how all beliefs boil down to faith in the quality and amount of evidence supporting them. We have to decide how much and what type of evidence we need before accepting a claim as a reasonable opinion to hold, as an opinion we agree with, or as a true fact we can’t argue with.
Applying Fact vs. Opinion
To be well-informed, then, we need to grasp the differences between facts and opinions, recognize them when we see them, and ground our own opinions accordingly.
Otherwise, we find ourselves adrift and unsure what to believe.
To communicate well orally or in writing, we need to emphasize facts and evidence without forgetting the emotional element that complicates our communication.
Facts don’t persuade people nearly as much as emotions, because the emotions sparked by claims, facts, and evidence either appeal to the audience or raise their hackles and keep them from hearing you.
Consider how your audience will likely react to your claims and supporting evidence. Use positive emotions to your advantage and avoid arousing negative emotions if you can.
You just might win some hearts and minds.
Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric, and he is the author of Become Your Own Fact-Checker and How to Write an Essay Like an Equation.
Check out his books and sign up for his newsletter at the homepage of www.ericsentell.com