Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why fact and opinion is a false dilemma

Let me rant and rave a little bit about the “fact and opinion” exercises that are given to school children. (Here, I am operating in the tradition of C. S. Lewis, who in the Abolition of Man complained about the implied positivist philosophy that he thought to be smuggled into students’ English textbooks). This “fact and opinion” dichotomy strikes me as being intellectual rat poison. According to the school exercise, A fact is what can be proven true or false and can be true for everyone, an opinion is a personal feeling and is not necessarily true for everyone.

This seems, pretty clearly, to commit the fallacy of the false dilemma. There can be a fact of the matter as to whether something is true or false, without our being able to prove it true or false. There can be a “fact of the matter” about something, and at the same time there can be more or less reasonable opinions about it. In fact, the most reasonable opinion about something may turn out to be false, nevertheless it is the most reasonable opinion. Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders. Is opinion a) something purely subjective, or b) something about which there is a truth, but uncertainty amongst human beings as to what the truth is? I frequently use that term of b, but very often people mean a. This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want me to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility.

12 comments:

Hal said...

"Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders."

The fact of the matter is that Jack the Ripper committed those murders. Unless more evidence becomes available, people are free to form their own opinions about who Jack the Ripper was. Of course, it is possible that one of those opinions could turn out to be true. Then the identity of Jack the Ripper would be another fact. Or perhaps all of the opinions regarding his identity could be mistaken.

I'm having trouble understanding why you see this as being like 'intellectual rat poison'. Shouldn't we distinguish between opinions and facts?

Perhaps I've misunderstood you completely. In which case it would be helpful to me if you could clarify what you are saying.

Gyan said...

A fact is something undisputable and held by all parties in contention.

An opinion, by contrast, is not held in common by all parties and in fact, is the point in dispute.

Cal Metzger said...

VR: "Consider Jack the Ripper. There are a lot of opinions about what Jack the Ripper was, but there is also a fact as to who committed those murders."

Really now? What is the fact about who committed those murders?

I think you mean that some things are unknown. We have better words for facts that aren't known.

VR: "This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want me to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility."

Um hm.




Ilíon said...

"This gets really difficult when I ask students to write papers and want me to give me their reflective opinions, supported by argument. If [t]he fact-opinion dichotomy is exhaustive, then I am asking for an impossibility."

And, in fact, "reflective [conclusions], supported by argument" is exactly what the term 'opinion' means.

This "fact-opinion dichotomy" indicative of:
1) ignorance, and
2) self-satisfaction with that ignorance

oozzielionel said...

"A fact is something indisputable and held by all parties in contention."
How many such facts are there? We landed on the moon? Oswald shot Kennedy? The Holocaust happened? Jesus existed? The earth is round?

So all it takes is one dissenter and fact becomes opinion?

Hal said...

Google is our friend here:

o·pin·ion

noun
noun: opinion; plural noun: opinions
a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.
"I'm writing to voice my opinion on an issue of great importance"

the beliefs or views of a large number or majority of people about a particular thing.
"the changing climate of opinion"

an estimation of the quality or worth of someone or something.
"I had a higher opinion of myself than I deserved"

a formal statement of advice by an expert on a professional matter.
"seeking a second opinion from a specialist"

a formal statement of reasons for a judgment given.

a lawyer's advice on the merits of a case.

oozzielionel said...

Google doesn't help at all with the definition of fact.
Here's one: "a thing that is indisputably the case
Here's another: "something that truly exists or happens; something that has actual existence"

The first depends on subjecive agreement. The second is purely ontological.

Victor Reppert said...

Indeed, I thought those definitions actually illustrated the ambiguity of these terms. If it is a fact, do we have to be able to get consensus on the fact, or do all we need is a fact of the matter out there somewhere.

Jack the Ripper had a name. Let's say his name was Bill Smith. Is it a fact that he had this name, or does the fact that it certainty is epistemically inaccessible make it a matter of opinion.

Here is my teaching experience. If students ask "Do you want our opinions?" and you say no, you get book reports. If you say "yes," you get what I call "I feel" papers. And if you grade them down, they assume it must only be because you have a different opinion than they have, in which they ask you who are you to say their feelings are wrong, since, after all, they are personal.

David Brightly said...

I agree with Victor. The fact/opinion dichotomy is coarse and rides roughshod over distinctions we need to make. It's not even clear that facts and opinions are exclusive. If I ask my doctor his opinion of what's wrong with me, and he tells me I've got tachyresponditis, and he's right, then it seems his opinion is a fact. Philosophy could take a lead in clarifying this, but I guess the distinctions some philosophers would like to make would be controversial for others.

Hal said...

Victor,
"Jack the Ripper had a name. Let's say his name was Bill Smith. Is it a fact that he had this name, or does the fact that it certainty is epistemically inaccessible make it a matter of opinion."

It is a fact the he had a name. It is your opinion that his name was Bill Smith. That opinion could be based on mere feeling or some degree of evidence that is not conclusive. Of course, it could turn out that his name really was Bill Smith. Perhaps new evidence will come forth that would justify us calling it a fact.
Why can't one simply acknowledge the possibility of JtR's name being Bill Smith?


"Here is my teaching experience. If students ask "Do you want our opinions?" and you say no, you get book reports. If you say "yes," you get what I call "I feel" papers. And if you grade them down, they assume it must only be because you have a different opinion than they have, in which they ask you who are you to say their feelings are wrong, since, after all, they are personal. "

Sound frustrating. Guessing that if I were in your situation, I would not answer their question with a simple yes or no since that is not enough to indicate how you want to use the word "opinion". Maybe using an example like David provided: the doctor's opinion is based on his knowledge and not simply feelings.

Victor Reppert said...

There is so much clarification needed with the fact-opinion distinction that in using it we run the risk setting up an unacceptable dichotomy in the minds of children that makes it difficult to grasp the idea that opinions can be well-informed to a greater or lesser degree. People sometimes get the idea that everything we can't achieve rational consensus about is just "mere opinion" and not worth spending one's time thinking about.

Ilíon said...

"Google doesn't help at all with the definition of fact."

Google *also* isn't all that much help with finding the definition of 'opinion' -- what is automatically displays is the currently popular school-yard misunderstanding of the term. So, of course, that is what Hal went with.

However, the Merriam-Webster doesn't yet offer such a simplistic and inaccurate definition.