Discerning fact from opinion

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.


In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing editor@mi-reporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.mi-reporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

More in Opinion

Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.
Calendars help us to number our days | Guest column

It wasn’t until I was out of seminary and serving my first… Continue reading

Email editor@mi-reporter.com
Even more Mercer Island candidate letters | Election 2021

Editor’s note: Due to the volume of letters endorsing Mercer Island candidates… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
A look at city council races around the region | Roegner

Hot contests in Mercer Island and Bellevue.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
Our economy works when consumers pick winners | Brunell

Poland and America are like two trains passing each other in opposite… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Big-time politics: Redistricting for 2022 elections | Roegner

Based on new census data, which shows Washington state has grown by… Continue reading

Email editor@mi-reporter.com
Mercer Island candidate letters | Election 2021

Editor’s note: Due to the volume of letters endorsing Mercer Island candidates… Continue reading

A photo of Greg Asimakoupoulos' father in law.
A tale of two Hughs | Guest column

This week marks the 90th anniversary of an event that put my… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Questions surround vaccine exemptions for state workers | Roegner

With about 4,800 state employees in 24 agencies requesting vaccine exemptions, which… Continue reading

Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray serves as Faculty of English at Highline College. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India.
What the Afghan wants to say: Arezo’s journey to America | Guest column

In our little Zoom room, I hear my interviewee break into sobs.… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Can a Texas-style abortion law happen in Washington? | Roegner

If politicians really want to anger women voters, the easiest way is… Continue reading

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
Reasons to ban Gov. Jay Inslee’s natural gas ban | Brunell

Column: Switching from natural gas to electricity is complicated and will impact everyone.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
Vaccinations improve our health and employment numbers | Brunell

It is not surprising that COVID-19, which ravaged the world, was disastrous… Continue reading