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The Fact Opinion Myth

Take a moment to categorize each of the following three statements as either fact or opinion.

  • Fact or Opinion: Sea water contains salts.
  • Fact or Opinion: Chocolate is delicious.
  • Fact or Opinion: Murder is bad.

Did you know that how you categorize the above statements can possibly date you? There should be no question about the first statement, which is clearly a fact. Likewise, the second statement is an opinion, which is especially clear if you happen not to like chocolate. However, the last statement is the most likely to generate disagreement.

If you believe that the statement "Murder is bad" is a fact, you either have been living in a cave and are terribly behind the times, or, you haven't bought into all the new definitions of our day. Now, let me be fast to let you know that I don't buy into all of the new definitions of the times either, including this one. But, let us take a look at what is happening.

There was a time when a fact meant "a thing that...is really true." (Websters 2nd). Times, they have changed. Students in school today are frequently asked to evaluate whether certain statements are fact or opinion, much like you just did above. What is the criterion given to the students to distinguish between the two? Facts are defined, not as "a thing that is really true", but rather as those things which are verifiable through direct observation. Anything outside the realm of the directly observable falls in the catagory of opinion.

Now, don't get me wrong...I believe it is of utmost importance in today's world of charlatans and manipulative promotionals and politicians that students learn to be critical thinkers and to be taught to distinguish between substantiated and unsubstantiated statements. However, the choice of language is an unfortunate one. I am fearful that a word which once had valuable meaning in the English language has been nearly stripped of its potency today, and with the word, a concept that once profoundly affected intellectual thought has been virtually forgotten. And, that concept is this: there are truths that are by their nature beyond the scope of direct observation and measurement, and yet, they are facts all the same, regardless of what anyone's opinions may be pertaining to them.

To be honest, this shift in language is not so much to blame for the shift in our thinking as it is symptomatic of a shift in our thinking that had already begun to take place. The new definition of the word "fact" fits well with the materialistic mindset of our modern day in which a higher reality - God - either doesn't exist, or His existence really is of no consequence to us. After all, if God doesn't exist, then really, whether something is right or wrong, or good or bad, really has no relevance outside the neurons of a person's brain. For, after all, how could it? If there is no God, who is to arbitrate between one person's sense of ethics and another's? No one. "Murder is bad" is thus just as much an opinion and no more of a fact as "Chocolate is delicious" and "the Beetles trump Beethoven" (or vise versa).

We are outraged at the alarming rate of murders and wholesale violence escalating in our world today. But hasn't society, by adopting a world view in which differentiating between right and wrong is akin to selecting from so many flavors of ice cream, given the person with the gun little cause for second thought before making tomorrow's headlines? Isn't it about time we pitch the holy grail - the mantra of today for young and old, educated and uneducated alike - that "You have your opinion and I have mine, and that's fine just so long as you don't tell me I'm wrong"?

Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that what we need is for government to legislate in matters of religion and to compel the consciences of its citizenry. I am a strong believer in the liberty of conscience that the American forefathers fought for, to worship according to the dictates of personal conscience rather than according to the dictates of someone else's. The history of religious intolerance by nearly every major branch of religion (including atheism by the way) is bathed deep in blood. Every thinking person owes it to himself or herself to study it out, for it has largely been forgotten and swept under the opulant carpet of modern forgetfulness. This in itself is very disturbing, because history that is forgotten is destined to be repeated - and it could happen sooner than we may like to think. The force of truth itself should be the instrumentality to change hearts, and not the force of civil power.

What I am suggesting is that we stop educating society that there are no absolutes, that we start applying ourselves to the pursuit of absolute truth, that we encourage others to do the same, and that the sooner we do these things, the better off we will be.




Last updated July 9, 2005

Image of Hubble Ultra Deep Field by NASA and ESA

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