My interest was recently piqued by an article in The Atlantic (October 23, 2018) claiming that “Americans over 50 are worse than younger people at telling facts from opinions, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.” Author Alexis Madrigal summarizes the results of the study: “Given 10 statements, five each of fact and opinion, younger Americans correctly identified both the facts and the opinions at higher rates than older Americans did.” But is the fact vs. opinion dichotomy a viable one? Philosopher John Corvino thinks not. In a hard-hitting article titled, The Fact/Opinion Distinction (The Philosophers’ Magazine, 4 March 2015), he surveys several attempts to elucidate the distinction, and concludes that they all fail.
For instance, some people claim that facts are true, but surely opinions can be true as well. Others assert that facts are directly observable, but many scientific facts would fail to satisfy this condition. (Seen a quark lately?) Still others propose that opinions express beliefs, but this makes no sense either: some of our beliefs are factual beliefs, while others are mistaken beliefs. Nor will it do to define facts are statements which are provably true: as Corvino points out, “proof” is to some degree audience-relative, and there is no absolute yardstick that measures whether a proof works or not. (I might add that few scientific statements are actually provable.) More promising is the proposal that facts have objective content, whereas opinions have subjective content, but many statements commonly classified as opinions (“God exists”) say nothing about subjective states of mind, while other statements which describe subjective states (“Being publicly humiliated is psychologically harmful”) are arguably factual. Lastly, the much-vaunted “fact-value distinction” does not coincide with the alleged distinction between facts and opinions, as some statements which are said to express opinions (e.g. A Democrat will win the White House in 2020) say nothing at all about values. In the end, Corvino tentatively puts forward a definition of his own: a statement of fact, he suggests, is “one that has objective content and is well-supported by the available evidence” whereas a statement of opinion is “is one whose content is either subjective or else not well supported by the available evidence” (italics mine – VJT). But this strikes me as a contrived definition: something is a fact if it is A + B, and an opinion if it is not-A or not-B. In the end, Corvino suggests “that we abandon the ambiguous fact/opinion distinction” and “focus instead on whether people can offer good reasons for the claims they make” – a sentiment which I would echo.
In order to see more clearly why the fact-opinion is philosophically flawed, let’s have a look at the five opinion-statements listed by Madrigal in his article in The Atlantic:
1. Democracy is the greatest form of government.
2. Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country today.
3. Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.
4. Abortion should be legal in most cases.
5. Increasing the federal wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy.
But what about these statements, which are identical in form to the above statements, and differ only in content?
1′. Longer life is the greatest form of poverty reduction. [See here for why.]
2′. Climate change and pollution are a very big problem for the country today.
3′. Bottled water is almost always wasteful and inefficient.
4′. Self-defense should be legal in most cases.
5′. Maintaining our competitiveness is essential for the health of the U.S. economy.
While statements 1 to 5 above would generally be regarded as opinions, one could make a good case that statements 1′ to 5′ are factual: they are either axiomatic or well-supported by evidence.
I can only conclude that semantics fails dismally to capture the fact-opinion distinction. Pondering this, I had another idea: could we construct an algorithm which would distinguish reliably between facts and opinions? Obviously, we could, if we allowed it to learn from human evaluations of whether a statement expresses a fact or a mere opinion. And in time, I imagine that the algorithm would surpass the abilities of most humans, most of the time. But then I had another thought, after reflecting on Corvino’s final definition of a fact as a statement supported by good reasons. A generalized algorithm for distinguishing a good argument from a bad one sounds like an impossibility to me: the number of different kinds of arguments is potentially infinite, and one could never build an algorithm to evaluate them all. And for that matter, how would the algorithm evaluate arguments relating to its own abilities?
One thing I am certain of, however, and it is this: attempts to school children in the distinction between a fact and an opinion are, for the most part, pure and unmitigated rubbish.
Consider this video by David Snell, which blithely informs readers that facts can be proven, whereas opinions cannot. We have already observed that many scientific statements would fall foul of this criterion. To make matters worse, Snell claims that any statement containing the word “should” should be deemed an opinion. (What about that statement?) Snell maintains that “Pregnant women should not drink alcohol” expresses an opinion, even though he freely acknowledges that studies show drinking alcohol during pregnancy is harmful to the health of the unborn child. I can only reply: if proving that doing X is inherently harmful isn’t enough to show that you shouldn’t do it, then what is?
Or take this video by Imagine Easy Solutions which defines a fact as a statement which is accepted by the majority (!), verified by experts and proven information. Since the video fails to inform its readers what constitutes proof, it is utterly worthless. To make matters worse, the video claims that if the author of a statement is known for having extreme points of view, the statement should be rejected as an opinion. And how does it propose that viewers identify bias in an author? By Googling it. I kid you not. To compound its errors, the video classes all statements preceded by the words, “I think that…” as mere opinions. Finally, statements like “Cronuts are the greatest dessert pastry of all time” are uniformly classified as opinions, but it ain’t necessarily so. Food critics can agree, for instance, on what makes a great pizza (see here and here), and most of us know a good wine when we taste one.
Lastly, this popular video (if you can bear to watch it – honestly, it’s like watching paint dry) informs its viewers: “An opinion is a belief or feeling. It is a person’s thoughts. It cannot be proven.” There is so much philosophical nonsense contained in these three statements that I feel like throwing my hands up in the air. “Shopping is hard work” is classified as an opinion. Oh, really? What about “Trudging around a shopping mall for eight hours is hard work,” or “Carrying a 20-kilogram shopping bag for 2 kilometers is hard work”? Are these mere opinions?
I feel sorry for today’s schoolchildren, who are often forced to take lessons on distinguishing facts from opinions by well-meaning but misguided teachers. They deserve better than this. What say you? Do you think the distinction is a vital one?
FMM has not posted in in some time. The bare statement of negativity and its repetition is redirected to VJT in FMM’s absence and is a symptom of TSZ-withdrawal.
Popular? No No No.
Hah. Depends on what you mean by “withdrawal.”
But look, since I first started posting here, I’ve been pressing the difference between ratio essendi and and ratio cognosendi–territory and map, being and being known.
The OP here (and I’m thinking that the articles on which it’s based as well) is just a mass of confusion of those things. Why must I say the same stuff again and again and again? This OP and the comments after it indicate that there’s really no point. In any case, there are so many easily available classic articles on these issues by wonderful philosophers. And, I’m sure without looking, one can also turn to the Stanford and Internet Encyclopedias of Philosophy for enlightenment on this. After all, these cock-ups aren’t exactly new.
There are thorny issues involving facts, certainly. But not these.
Really? It’s on one of those blogs for students, isn’t it? Anyhow, simplistic or not, I thought it was really good.
Incidentally, I think I must have driven FMM away when I said that, in spite of what seemed obvious to him, I don’t have anything against him.
Disappeared after that.
Claims are not facts they are constructed from a collection of facts if they are factual claims.
You could just quote yourself.
Interesting, a fact is objective. Also interesting a fact cannot be wrong.
You’re asking walto to be more like keiths?
That’s a bit better. Not great (“could be verifiable in time and space,” “reflection of reality,” and “facts cannot be wrong” are needlessly confusing). E.g., facts cannot be right either.
But crappy as that “definition” is, it IS better than most of the stuff that can be found above it.
Facts are “truth makers”: if some opinion is true there is a fact that it expresses. If an opinion is false, there is no such fact. (Unless, of course, you don’t countenance facts in your ontology, which many don’t.)
I def don’t have his linkage skills. Whatever anybody may think or say about him, the man could find and LINK! I sometimes wondered if he kept a careful file of every remark he disagreed with that anybody had ever made here. (I mean in addition to every remark he ever made that he agreed with–which was all of them.)
I’m not saying it was not good, I’m just saying it was not a populatization in the sense that anyone could read it and get a lot out of it. At the start, he says, in effect, that if people cannot make much of it, he hopes they are suitably impressed (mystified?) by the rigour of analysis.
From what I know of phil of language, he does what he sets out to do pretty well: he captures the essence of Frege/Russell and their followers in a small number of exemplars with limited explanation. I see the piece as best for people who already know the basic philosophy underlying those exemplars. I am not sure why he omitted sense/reference or descriptive/causal stuff for names (did I mess them?), they get significant space in the texts I have seen. Maybe he saw it as a unneeded detour to his sentence-oriented approach.
Also, is Austin a representative example of the later Witt and followers? Not AFAIK. Or did he only give the whole meaning-is-use approach a lower priority to his preferred Possible-World Semantics approach (although AFAIK his approach without the PWS is the majority approach).
I think the site where the article appears, Medium, is mostly for unpublished authors who want to learn/practice writing without worrying about getting paid for it (yet). I’ve seen it host lots of complex stuff on AI learning algorithms, for example. So its for students, maybe, but not beginners.
Also I am not sure if popularizations are same as tutorials/learning resources.
OK, I stand corrected. “Popular philosophy” is not a good term for it. It is indeed Frege oriented. He explains the latter’s views so nicely and succinctly.
I don’t know what you’re referring to wrt Austin’s “Possible-world semantics approach.” Doesn’t sound like the Austin I know.
FWIW, the Atlantic article reports a survey showing that younger people got the “right” answers more often than older people on a list of fact/opinion examples where it was generally accepted (by the survey authors at least) which was fact and which was opinion.
And the linked Corvino article was about how to deal with relativists who say (or tweet and tweet and tweet): “That is just your opinion”. (Possibly with added “my got us smarter than you to boot”).
After a popularization of some philosophy of facts, and finding it wanting for the purpose of dealing with such relativists, it settles on recommending that one try to change focus to method of inquiry. I thought it was useful. More in the critical thinking vein than philosophy, though. Any philosophy in that would be epistemology, I suppose.
That’s already a mess. What I’m guessing they actually had was a list of true and false sentences.
That’s epistemology and ethics of belief stuff. Doesn’t have a thing to do with facts.
Sorry, I I did not word that well.
I read the author as the PWS guy when he says ” key point is that we move from a picture first according to which sentences just mean truth values, to one on which they truth values relative to worlds, to one on which they mean truth values relative to worlds and contexts.”
The Austin stuff was a performative utterances example, which is an example of meaning in use, I think. But not an example at the the heart of the Witt approach as I understand it.
Oh, I see. Yes, I think true Wittgensteinians probably do distance themselves not only from Austin, but from the entire world of Oxford casuists.
Good point. Perhaps this is more about justification, then, assuming JTB, with the added unspoken, added assumption that assertions only deserve to be said to represent (assert?) facts when they are Justified (and true?).
I don’t think that can be right. Surely it’s possible to assert the same thing with or without justification. Consider ‘Jones is wearing tweed today.’
No justification would mean the statement is correctly called an opinion (I take opinions to be a superset of statements expressing facts.)
The Corvino article is about the finding the subset of statements which are opinions but which further deserve to be said to express facts based on a (domain-relative) the analysis of their justification via the underlying method of inquiry.
A Philosophy Now article on Opinions and Facts that may be more to the point than the Corvino one:
Not that it matters much, but I still don’t like that. Of course, whether it’s OK depends on what “deserve to be said to express facts” means. Does “deserve” mean there’s requisite warrant that my claim should be taken seriously? If so, that’s OK, I think. Otherwise not.
When I say, “Jones is wearing tweed” my assertion could be highly justified or entirely unjustified, but I think it expresses the same state of affairs. And, if we assume that Jones is indeed wearing tweed, whether I’m justified or unjustified I’m referring to the same fact.
In other words, desert is irrelevant.
There’s a really interesting philosophical issue here about how to think about the relation between facts and true claims.
I don’t know what the existing literature is here, so I’m going to make up a distinction: fact externalism is the view that facts are external to conceptual frameworks, and constrain them — so that a claim is true when it corresponds to the facts, and false when it does not. Fact internalism is the view that facts just are true claims, so to say that something is a fact is just to say that it is a true claim.
Nelson Goodman would be a nice example of a fact internalist — facts are little theories and theories are big facts, as he puts it. (Bob Brandom is also a fact internalist.)
The fact internalist says that there’s no difference that makes a difference between asserting “p“, asserting “p is true”, and asserting “it is a fact that p” or “p is a fact”.
Wittgenstein in the Tractatus would be a nice example of a fact externalist: the world is made up of facts, and the true propositions are the propositions that “picture” those facts. Facts are not truths but truthmakers. (Notice that there are some easily confused issues here: does the correspondence theory of truth require truthmakers? What are truthmakers, and how do they fit into our ontology? Are facts truthmakers? If we give up on the correspondence theory of truth do we give up on realism? etc.)
I’m still not convinced that in reality there is a dichotomy between truth and falsity in language and communication. I mentioned Asimov to Bruce because I was thinking of Asimov’s essay – The Relativity of Wrong. I’m still not convinced by walto’s assertion (“No” etc.) that there isn’t a scale of accuracy. We perceive, we describe, others misunderstand. Where’s the truth?
Or am I still missing the point? Is language more than attempt to communicate accurately? I’ll grant exceptions: poetry, gas-lighting, rabble-rousing.
It matters to me, in the sense that a reasoned discussions of rare enough already on TSZ!
Yes, that is what I meant. The Corvino article is about the epistemology, not the ontology, of facts. I agree that attempt to compare facts with opinions is a mistake, as detailed in the Philosophy Now popularization of the issues I linked above.
In a conceptual and ontological analysis of facts, yes. But in applying philosophy to practice, I think not. If we decide that the degree of warrant for a claim merits action, then we are saying we want to change a state of affairs that (according to us) obtains. Which is tantamount to treating the claim as expressing a fact,. Viz, climate change.
That thought is how I read Corvino’s point. Also, it is how I understand IBE arguments to ordinary-object realism and to scientific realism about unobservables.
OK, it sounds like we’ve reached agreement on this stuff.
You need to talk to Alan.
I think we need to make a distinction between (1) truth-values of claims within some conceptual framework and (2) how adequately that conceptual framework maps onto some features of the world. We can accept a bivalent assignment of truth-values — all claims are true or false — while also accepting that conceptual frameworks map onto features of the world with various degrees of adequacy.
I’d also point out that claiming or asserting is one of the many things that we do with language. We promise, command, ask, persuade, tell jokes and stories, greet each other, say goodbye, sanction, prescribe, prohibit, etc. — none of those speech acts have truth-values. So although we need to focus on true and false claims in our epistemology, we shouldn’t forget that claims are a fragment of a larger whole in our philosophy of language.
There are also vagueness, ambiguity, the all-devouring sorites, etc.
But what Alan is missing from my remarks was that I was never talking about determinations of whether some assertion is true or false. I was talking about the category mistake that KN discusses in his previous comment. Opinions and facts simply aren’t comparable items in the manner put forth by the OP–though perhaps one may “correspond” or “refer to” or “express” the other, perhaps in various better or worse ways.
Bruce does manage very well as your translator! 😉
Sorry I missed that. It was hidden among all the “No”s. 😉 I’ll wait for Bruce to comment.
Now I’m reading that as taking my point to some extent – how adequately any statement represents a truth is the question. I just don’t see how any statement that isn’t too vague to be untrue can be completely true. No problem that a statement can be false.
Seduce, you forgot seduce. That might have been it’s primary role once. But I broadly agree with that.
Maybe that’s YOUR question (now). Take another look at the OP.
Did you get chance to look at this article. It explains the category error and much of Walt’s posts (after the “No No No”, was was based on habitual response to FMM I suspect).
My translation of the philosophers is that there are separate things
1. Ontology: the nature of facts (states of affairs that obtain is one approach)
2. Epistemology: how/if we can arrive at knowledge of facts
3. Phil of language: purposes of language use, in particular how (or even if) we use language to assert knowledge claims regarding facts.
One needs to start what the topics are and why they start separated, then argue from there about the nature of their interaction.
Not just assert that interaction it as a fact!
Although of course one is free to assert opinions, but bare opinions are not helpful input to debate about the success of inquiry into the facts.
Just read it. Seems all very clear and straightforward. I’m not sure what I’m missing?
1 is what are things and 2 is how we know that?
How we can know or even if we can know (that is, flavors of skepticism are part of epistemology). And of course what knowledge is, eg arguments about Justified True Belief and whether/how it captures our intuitive notions of what knowledge is.
The ‘intuitive’ in that is seen by some as an issue with philosophy. Quine thought we just rely completely on what science, eg psychology, finds about more effective ways to gain knowledge (also defined scientifically). But he had tenure so could argue that as a philosopher.
Some philosophers work in experimental philosophy regarding epistemology to study eg those intuitive notions and how eg they vary among communtieis
There is a Bayesian approach to epistemology that builds on the Corvino article’s recommendation to talk about probabilities.
I guess you’re referring to my psych here. Or at least I hope so, because FMM was not one to make this map-territory error. He’s one of the more philosophically acute posters here, IMHO.
I was referring to the text and length of most of the FMM responses I have seen lately. Which admittedly is by no means a large or representative sample.
I’ve just been looking at Dr Christoffer S. Lammer-Heindel’s article, Facts and Opinions, which you kindly linked to. I agree that it is better argued than Corvino’s article, and makes a lot of very sensible points. Here’s an excerpt:
That is much much better. Completely straightens out the worst of the confused tangles in the OP and Corvino piece.