Think back about the last argument you had. Someone made a categorical statement that you strongly disagreed with. How did you react? Did you come back at them with an equally strong statement? Did the views expressed become heated and angry? Did you raise your voice and get red in the face? If you sit back and think about the argument, could either of you tell the difference between what were facts and what were opinions?
Do you understand the difference? For many of us the two words mean the same thing – don’t they? However, a fact is information that can be verified by concrete evidence. An opinion is a belief that cannot be proven by evidence.
As a teacher of critical thinking to 16- to 18-year-olds I have often observed that students have difficulty telling the difference. Doing so requires training and practice. Based upon my conversations with people through the years, I have often found it is difficult for adults, as well, to discern the differences between fact and opinion.
This nation and world desperately need to develop this discernment skill.
As an observer of human nature I have found that we humans often follow a pattern: we form an opinion; then in the blink of an eye that belief takes on the cloak of absolute truth – a “fact” – then instantaneously that “truth” becomes a judgment of others’ behavior.
Have you ever watched yourself or others caught in that pattern? It becomes most obvious when we make a statement and then someone challenges our “truth.” An argument then ensues. Each side argues their view of truth with the ferocity of a religious fanatic. At the end of the argument we now believe even more strongly in our “truth” and the other’s errors and ignorance. In order to hold to our view of the truth, we tend to demean the person we argued with as being not quite as human as we are. We objectify them and put them into categories or boxes that we have developed over time: liberal, conservative, religious fanatic and outsider, to name a few.
Another category of opinion is labeled “expert opinion.” Rather than relying upon our emotions to turn opinions into “fact” we can choose to rely on someone who has studied that field for years and who has come to conclusions on controversial issues based upon research and thought. Unfortunately, different experts will come to studied opinions that differ from other experts’ opinions based upon a different sets of facts. At least with expert opinion, there is room to see the reasoning and perspectives of others and the discussion of differences becomes more reasonable. We should follow the advice of Steven Covey and his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”:
“Seek first to understand, and then be understood.” When we do, then we can begin to listen to another’s views, not necessarily to agree, but to understand why that person has come to believe as he/she does. That’s where learning and understanding can take place leading to growth and progress.
Getting to this point requires us to be willing to admit that we are all fallible human beings who don’t always know the full answer to many controversial and complex issues. It may be possible to honestly come to two or more differing opinions on the same topics where all parties are partially or wholly correct.
At the beginning of this column I made the statement that we desperately need the skill of understanding the difference between fact and opinion. Being unable to discern the difference can cause a great deal of grief. We must recognize and understand our own human tendency to mistake what we believe to be fact for what our beliefs often are – opinion – beliefs that can neither be proven nor disproven.
That requires a sense of humility on our part. Perhaps, if we exercised more humility about our own ignorance, and at the same time a sense of respect for what others believe, there might be less polarization in the world today. Perhaps if the next time we get into an argument about whatever issue, be it political or religious, we might push the “pause” button and ask ourselves whether what we strongly believe can be proven. If we cannot absolutely verify our opinions, then perhaps we should not be so vehement about them. We could instead try this approach: Listen respectfully. When they are finished say, “I have a different perspective on that issue, may I explain it?” Afterward, that other person now understands that there often is more than one point of view for many issues. Perhaps if we did that more often, we might find there are fewer unsolvable problems among people.