“That’s just your opinion.” My students and my children have given vent to this phrase countless times during dinner table discussions and philosophical conversations, often in response to some fundamental and important matter. Hearing the word “opinion” used in this way takes me back to my own school days, before learning the real meaning of the word “opinion” in the context of philosophy, and I recall to mind the exercises where we had to look at a list of statements and label them “fact or opinion.” I have come to find out that these lessons continue in school today, and a quick internet search found many, many examples of worksheets and lessons for elementary school and English teachers to teach and reinforce the idea that every statement should be labeled fact or opinion. Let’s take a look at some examples.
The first three of the following statements have been collected from various “Fact or opinion?” worksheets used in school classrooms around the country. The other two are my own creation.
Categorize each statement below as a fact or opinion, and then read on to see how you did. Scores on this quiz count towards your final grade. (Is the old, school anxiety setting in?)
- Sharks are mean because they eat other fish.
- Bluebirds are prettier than hummingbirds.
- Chocolate pudding tastes great.
- The earth revolves around the sun.
- “Fact or opinion” is a false dichotomy.
The solution keys for the first three statements said that they are all opinions. On the answer keys provided with the worksheets, no reasons were given, just that they are a matter of opinion, and are, therefore, not facts. Unfortunately, based on what I have learned in my study of philosophy and as I will go on to show, those keys are either wrong or only give half the answer. The well-trained student of the fact-or-opinion curriculum will identify the fourth statement as a fact, but not an opinion. To label that statement as “fact,” for most people, is actually incorrect. As for the fifth statement, that has to do with the thesis of this article.
My students are often shocked to hear me say that every statement is either true or false; in other words, fact or fiction. There is no example of a statement that is a mere “opinion” in the sense of “neither true nor false,” because opinion really means a belief that does not have a lot of evidence. The alternative to opinion is knowledge. What separates opinion from knowledge is the degree of certainty possessed by the person who makes the statement. Every statement is either fact or fiction in itself depending on whether or not it corresponds with reality. Every statement is also either opinion or knowledge depending on how much evidence or reason the person has for believing it. Let’s take a closer look at each of the statements above to make my meaning clearer.
The statement that sharks are mean because they eat other fish is not a fact. However, neither is it an opinion. Here is why. If we look up the definition of mean, we find that it is synonymous with unkind and cruel. All three words indicate a level of intentionality and a will to harm.
Sharks have no intentionality and no will, let alone a will to harm, be cruel, mean, or unkind, because they eat other fish. The statement asserts that sharks are mean for a specific reason, but that reason does not justify the application of the adjective mean, and is, therefore, fiction, as opposed to fact. Since we are able to look up the definitions and reason through why eating other fish does not imply meanness, we know that it is false, as opposed to having the opinion that it is false.
The second statement that bluebirds are prettier than hummingbirds is not a fact; it is fiction. If we consult a dictionary, we find that pretty has to do with being attractive in a delicate way.
Bluebirds, while attractive, are not nearly as attractive in a delicate way as hummingbirds. The hummingbirds in my yard are as delicate as can be, flitting to and fro such that I would not even notice them if I were not looking for them, and they can hover in front of and drink from a honeysuckle flower without disturbing a petal. Their features are small and look as if they might not survive a light rain. Bluebirds on the other hand, make a sound as unnerving as nails on a chalkboard and land on my birdfeeder with all the grace of a cannonball shot from 500 yards away. No, once this statement is understood, it is clear that it is fiction, not fact. And that is not a mere opinion; it is knowledge, for me at least. For someone who had no or very limited contact and experience with these two types of birds, it would be opinion, and not knowledge.
The third statement that chocolate pudding tastes great may be fact, or it may be fiction. It is one or the other, but the content of the statement has to be determined first. The question is, what does the person making the statement mean by the statement? Does he mean that chocolate pudding is his favorite pudding? Does he mean simply that he really enjoys eating chocolate pudding? Does he mean that he has conducted a survey and found out that the majority of people like the way that chocolate pudding tastes? Is he referring to a clearly defined culinary standard and stating that chocolate pudding is on the level of greatness, whatever that means according to the chef’s scale? The statement, as it stands, is vague. But that does not mean that it is not true or false, it just means that clarification is needed to make the content of the statement more apparent. If the meaning of the statement matches with reality, then it is a fact. If the meaning of the statement does not match with reality, then it is fiction. If, for example, he simply means that chocolate is his favorite flavor of pudding, then he is either telling the truth or he is lying. Chocolate either is or is not his favorite flavor of pudding.
Once the meaning has been determined, the person making the statement has to explain on what basis he makes the statement. What is the evidence? After hearing a rational defense or lack thereof, we can decide if this statement is knowledge or opinion.
It is a fact that the earth revolves around the sun, but for 99.9% of the earth’s population, that statement is opinion. Most people believe that the earth goes around the sun, not because they have carried out the necessary telescopic observations to observe stellar parallax and verify the motion of the earth or reasoned through the predictions of Newton’s theory of gravitation to find that it matches with Kepler’s orbital laws, but because they trust what their teachers, textbooks, and society has taught them. They do not know it for themselves. Therefore, it is fact in itself and opinion in the minds of most.
By now the judicious reader will have predicted the answer to the final statement that “fact or opinion” is a false dichotomy is fact, not fiction, and knowledge, not opinion. Fact and opinion are not mutually exclusive, because a fact is a true statement, as opposed to a false one. An opinion is a belief that someone holds with a limited amount of evidence, as opposed to a belief someone can justify. The exact amount of evidence that differentiates opinion from knowledge is debatable but irrelevant. The important point here is simply that opinion is a weaker form of assent, and knowledge is a stronger form. Every statement is either true or false in itself, once the meaning and content of the statement is clearly identified. Every statement is either fact or opinion based on the reasons one has for believing it.
A result of the fact-or-opinion training is that two categories are created in the mind of the student: things that are true, and things that are neither true nor false. Instead of opinion being a level of assent for belief, it becomes an idea that is neither true nor false. Every statement someone hears goes into a category of “true, and I should believe it” or “that is just his or her opinion.”
Essentially, the fact-or-opinion curriculum is first-rate training for thinking relativistically. What’s true for you is true merely for you, and what is true for me is what is true merely for me, except, perhaps, when it comes to science. Science is the only real way to know, and the rest is just mere “opinion” (i.e. neither true nor false, as opposed to the traditional understanding of opinion). Entire domains of learning have been tossed into the opinion bin, most especially the domains of religion, ethics, and philosophy. What could be more damaging for an educational culture and culture in general, I do not know.
I cannot tell how often I have asked my students about some deep, fundamental, philosophical, or moral question and the reply has come back, “Well, isn’t that a matter of opinion?” Is it wrong to murder? Does reality exist? Does God exist? What is the nature of God? What is the nature of right and wrong? What is the meaning of life? Why do humans have rights? Do I have a soul? What is the proper role of government? What is true happiness? What is the best way to live? Is Jesus God? For most modern people, all of these questions exist in the realm of pure “opinion.” Whether or not the fact -or-opinion curriculum was designed this way, it has rendered the most important questions in life not only unimportant, but nothing more than mere “opinion” in the minds of its students, neither true nor false. What is true for you is true merely for you. These questions are also nothing less than mere “opinion” because there is nothing less than mere “opinion;” that is as low as it gets.
We have been looking here mainly at the consequences of the fact-or-opinion curriculum, but the only reason to believe something is that it is true. Falsehood is damaging and unhealthy to thinking individuals. So, the most damaging thing about the fact-or-opinion dichotomy is simply that it is a false dichotomy. It is not true that fact and opinion are mutually exclusive categories, and it is not true that an opinion is a neither true nor false statement.
And so, I hope it is clear that it is time to get rid of the fact-or-opinion curriculum . . . as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on July 24, 2018.