4.3: FACTS, OPINION, BASIC FALLACIES
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Another style choice authors make is the use of fact and opinion.
ALWAYS QUESTION FACTS
For our purposes, the term fact refers to information that can be verified or proven. While this might sound very straightforward, there is more to it. It is always a good idea to question the ‘facts’ people present to you.
Facts often include numbers in the form of data or statistics. Empirical studies, or research, might also be considered to be factual. However, all facts are not created equal.
The source of the facts being presented matters.
For example, you may read an article on smoking. If the author uses a study funded by a tobacco company that says smoking is healthy for you, you may want to question thevalidity of those ‘facts.’ The tobacco company stands to benefit a great deal if everyone suddenly takes up smoking in order to improve their health.
This actually happened in the 1950’s in the United States.
Take the time to find the source of facts. In today’s political scene, for example, organizations are formed for the express purpose of hiding the source of funding for political ads.
Watch political ads to see who is funding the ad. Research the organization and look to see who their donors are. This will tell you a great deal about the credibility of the facts they present.
When considering the validity of a text, you will want to consider not only the source of the information, but also something more subtle – what information did the author include, and what did the author exclude.
Have you ever heard a story told in such a way as to leave out key information in order to get a particular reaction? Excluding that key information is called omission.
Omission occurs when important information is not reported or is reported incompletely. We can think of omission as being news that should have been reported but is left out of the news we read, see and hear. When important news is omitted, we get a skewed or biased perspective.
-University of Michigan, News Bias Explored
(University of Michigan)
Authors who ‘cherry-pick,” or use facts selectively, should raise red flags for you as a thinker. At the very least, when you encounter this use or non-use of facts, you should look more deeply at the research on the subject.
OPINIONS ARE LIKE NOSES - EVERYONE HAS ONE
An opinion is a person’s thoughts or feelings about a topic, and most everyone has opinions. Yet, just as not all facts are created equal, all opinions are also not created equal.
You may think that opinions are to be avoided in academic articles and academic writing. Quite the opposite is true. Opinions can be very valuable in academic work, but like use of fact, it is important to examine the opinion carefully.
The first question you will want to ask yourself is, “Why should I pay attention to this opinion?”
This question, like all good learning questions, will lead you to more questions, which will in turn help you to determine how much value to place on an opinion.
Here are some things you should consider when you are evaluating an opinion.
Who is the source of the opinion?
What do you know of their world view? (sometimes called “point of view.”)
Experience with the topic?
Economic position in society?
Culture or social group?
Whose opinions do THEY value?
It is unlikely you will be able to determine all of these factors regarding an author’s world view. Nonetheless, you can learn a great deal by reading the “About the author” description on the article if it is present, or you can do a general internet search on the author.
If the article comes from a peer reviewed journal, you can generally assume it is pretty solid research. Peer reviewed journals are just what they sound like – academic journals in which the articles must pass a panel of peer reviewers who are responsible for making sure the content meets current research standards in the field in which it is conducted.
Check your syllabus. What assignments or parts of assignments are coming up to which you will apply your understanding of Fact and Opinion? When will this be due?
Read these two different excerpts on the founding of the United States. Then analyze the world view of each of the authors using the Author Profiles that follow.
“The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution are the greatest statements of human liberty ever written. They are the highest achievements of our political tradition, powerful beacons to all who strive for liberty. Taken together, these documents represent the liberating principles that America seeks to conserve for itself and proclaim to the world.”
- A Citizen's Introduction to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution
By Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
“Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.
When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.”
- A People’s History of the United States
By Howard Zinn
What did you notice about each author that would influence their world view? How would this contribute to such different interpretations of history? Be prepared to discuss your observations and analysis in our class discussion.