Discerning fact from opinion

It can be more difficult than people first think, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as a cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Thomas Jefferson

On more than one occasion, I have experienced the loss of a friendship due to a difference of opinion. It saddens and puzzles me because aren’t all relationships bigger than just one issue? For some, apparently not. I know of a pastor who decides on a candidate and a political party based solely on whether that person supports abortion or not. That seems incredibly narrow to me.

On at least one occasion, a person cut off his relationship with me because he deemed me too liberal for his liking, although I’m only liberal/progressive in some areas, and conservative in others. I’m a moderate who likes to hear the views from several perspectives.

Part of the cause for ending relationships comes down to the (dis)ability to discern the difference between fact and opinion.

Below are 10 statements from the non-partisan Pew Research Center study that tests competence in this area. Label each statement with either an F for fact or an O for opinion. The study is based on whether the statement can be proven or disproven based upon objective evidence.

See how well you do:

1. Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid makes up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget.

2. ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017.

3. Health care costs per person in the U.S. are the highest in the developed world.

4. Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have some rights under the Constitution.

5. Barack Obama was born in the United States.

6. Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country today.

7. Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.

8. Democracy is the greatest form of government.

9. Abortion should be legal in most cases.

10. Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the economy.”

The Pew Research Center survey was given between February 22 and March 8, 2018 to 5035 adult Americans. It found that only 26 percent of those surveyed got all the fact questions correct, while only 35 percent correctly identified all opinion questions. Roughly a quarter of the participants got them all or mostly wrong. (For the complete results of the survey go to: https://www.journalism.org/2018/06/18/distinguishing-between-factual-and-opinion-statements-in-the-news/).

This survey was not intended as a “knowledge quiz” of news content. However, the more politically aware a person was, and the more technologically savvy, the more likely they were to correctly discern between fact and opinion. People who trust the media tended to do better on this survey. People who distrust the media tended to score worse.

One of the findings from the survey is that “Republicans and Democrats [were] more likely to classify a news statement as factual if it favors their side—whether it is factual or opinion.”

Consider our current environment. Because we are so polarized politically, we tend to gravitate toward information that confirms our own biases. We tend to avoid information that contradicts what we believe. This is not a healthy approach to information. All points of view in the political spectrum have information that is reasonable.

Now for the answers! The first five statements are fact because they can be proven. The last five are opinion because there is no way to prove or disprove them.

How did you do? If you find yourself strongly disagreeing with the results, are you going to blame the bias of the survey, or ask whether this information applies to you? One approach requires humility, the other pride.

Thomas Jefferson was right: Detaching ourselves from others because of differences in politics, religion, or philosophy is a bad idea. If we can’t discern fact from opinion, it becomes very difficult to carry on rational conversations without cutting people out of our lives. Maintaining relationships is extremely important. I hope you share my opinion.

Richard Elfers is a Green River College professor.

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