This might seem like a simple question, but the answer is not so straightforward. The Macquarie Dictionary defines a fact as ‘what has really happened or is the case; truth; reality’. This implies that facts are objective, as opposed to opinions which are subjective. The distinction is important to scientific skepticism, which looks for objective evidence in support of dubious claims that are made.
The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability; that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to either empirical observation or deductive proof (such as 2+2=4). For instance, the proposition ‘It is raining’ describes the fact that it actually is raining. The rain that falls can be objectively measured in a rain gauge – it is not just a matter of opinion.
On the other hand, an opinion is a judgement, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective, such as ‘It is raining too much’. As Plato said: ‘opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance’.
Philosophers generally agree that facts are objective and verifiable. However, there are two main philosophical accounts of the epistemic status of facts. The first account is equivalent in meaning to the dictionary definition – a fact is that which makes a true proposition true. In other words, facts describe reality independently of propositions. This means that there can be unknown facts yet to be discovered by science or other investigations. But we cannot verify a fact unless we know about it. So the other account is that a fact is an item of knowledge – a proposition that is true and that we are justified in believing is true. This means that we either have to accept that there can be unknown and unverifiable facts, or we must adopt the position that facts are things that we know.
Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, ‘Facts‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Russell, Bertrand (1918) The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Open Court, La Salle.
Russell, Bertrand (1950) An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth, Allen & Unwin, London.
Which is more important, a fact or an opinion on any given subject? It might be tempting to say the fact. But not so fast…
Lately, we find ourselves lamenting the post-truth world, in which facts seem no more important than opinions, and sometimes less so.
We also tend to see this as a recent devaluation of knowledge. But this is a phenomenon with a long history.
As the science fiction writer Issac Asimov wrote in 1980:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.
The view that opinions can be more important than facts need not mean the same thing as the devaluing of knowledge. It’s always been the case that in certain situations opinions have been more important than facts, and this is a good thing. Let me explain.
Not all facts are true
To call something a fact is, presumably, to make a claim that it is true. This isn’t a problem for many things, although defending such a claim can be harder than you think.
What we think are facts – that is, those things we think are true – can end up being wrong despite our most honest commitment to genuine inquiry.
It’s not only that facts can change that is a problem. While we might be happy to consider it a fact that Earth is spherical, we would be wrong to do so because it’s actually a bit pear-shaped. Thinking it a sphere, however, is very different from thinking it to be flat.
Asimov expressed this beautifully in his essay The Relativity of Wrong. For Asimov, the person who thinks Earth is a sphere is wrong, and so is the person who thinks the Earth is flat. But the person who thinks that they are equally wrong is more wrong than both.
Geometrical hair-splitting aside, calling something a fact is therefore not a proclamation of infallibility. It is usually used to represent the best knowledge we have at any given time.
It’s also not the knockout blow we might hope for in an argument. Saying something is a fact by itself does nothing to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you. Unaccompanied by any warrant for belief, it is not a technique of persuasion. Proof by volume and repetition – repeatedly yelling “but it’s a fact!” – simply doesn’t work. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Matters of fact and opinion
Then again, calling something an opinion need not mean an escape to the fairyland of wishful thinking. This too is not a knockout attack in an argument. If we think of an opinion as one person’s view on a subject, then many opinions can be solid.
For example, it’s my opinion that science gives us a powerful narrative to help understand our place in the Universe, at least as much as any religious perspective does. It’s not an empirical fact that science does so, but it works for me.
But we can be much clearer in our meaning if we separate things into matters of fact and matters of opinion.
Matters of fact are confined to empirical claims, such as what the boiling point of a substance is, whether lead is denser than water, or whether the planet is warming.
Matters of opinion are non-empirical claims, and include questions of value and of personal preference such as whether it’s ok to eat animals, and whether vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate. Ethics is an exemplar of a system in which matters of fact cannot by themselves decide courses of action.
Matters of opinion can be informed by matters of fact (for example, finding out that animals can suffer may influence whether I choose to eat them), but ultimately they are not answered by matters of fact (why is it relevant if they can suffer?).
Backing up the facts and opinions
Opinions are not just pale shadows of facts; they are judgements and conclusions. They can be the result of careful and sophisticated deliberation in areas for which empirical investigation is inadequate or ill-suited.
While it’s nice to think of the world so neatly divided into matters of fact and matters of opinion, it’s not always so clinical in its precision. For example, it is a fact that I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate. In other words, it is apparently a matter of fact that I am having a subjective experience.
But we can heal that potential rift by further restricting matters of fact to those things that can be verified by others.
While it’s true that my ice cream preference could be experimentally indicated by observing my behaviour and interviewing me, it cannot be independently verified by others beyond doubt. I could be faking it.
But we can all agree in principle on whether the atmosphere contains more nitrogen or carbon dioxide because we can share the methodology of inquiry that gives us the answer. We can also agree on matters of value if the case for a particular view is rationally persuasive.
Facts and opinions need not be positioned in opposition to each other, as they have complementary functions in our decision-making. In a rational framework, they are equally useful. But that’s just my opinion – it’s not a fact.
Here at The Conversation, we are committed to publishing evidence-based journalism that aims to inform rather than persuade. In a world flooded with opinions based on alternative versions of reality, we think it’s vital that someone does the heavy lifting of sorting truth from fiction.
It’s one reason why we have been commissioning FactCheck articles written by academics since 2013. And it is why we are so pleased to see the return of the ABC Fact Check unit, which was closed in May 2016 and relaunched today as RMIT ABC Fact Check. In a time of slippery weasel words and “alternative facts”, Australia needs fact checking more than ever and it’s not something we think should be left to just one organisation.
The ABC’s return to fact checking, in collaboration with RMIT, will hopefully get the nation talking about facts, evidence and how we can all become more critical media consumers. It also reminds us of the importance of trust in journalism, and the need for media outlets to be transparent about how we work.
The Conversation’s unique FactCheck process, has been praised as a “unique and fascinating model” by the Poynter Institute in the US. It involves commissioning academic experts from across Australia to pen short articles testing statements by politicians and other public figures against the evidence. We always offer right of reply to the person whose factual claims we are checking.
We then ask a second academic expert to blind review the FactCheck draft. That means they read it without knowing the original author’s identity to check that it really is correct and impartial. The blind review is a crucial step and has helped weed out inaccuracies many times in the past. Our FactCheck Editors challenge both author and blind reviewer to support their own arguments with sourcing and high quality evidence.
Above all, we want our FactChecks to be accurate and fair, and help hold our community and political leaders to account. Our FactChecks have been mentioned in parliament, republished widely and cited by advisers helping to craft policy.
In 2017, we are continuing our collaboration with ABC TV’s Q&A program, in which we ask for viewers to send us panellist statements they’d like to see fact-checked using the hashtags #factcheck #qanda. We’re hoping that the new RMIT ABC Fact Check team will be joining us in this work soon. In the meantime we are hoping to publish more FactChecks than ever, following the expansion of our FactCheck editorial team late last year.
It’s our hope that a healthy fact-check culture in Australia will have us all listening to our public figures with a more critical ear, and asking ourselves: “Hang on, is that really true?”
So far The Conversation has published nearly 200 FactCheck articles and you can read them here. You can also request a new FactCheck at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.
Thanks again for reading The Conversation and for caring about the facts.
(An edited version of this article was published in “The Skeptic” Vol 37, No. 2, June 2017)
The claim ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ or ‘I have a right to my opinion’ is a logical fallacy in which a person attempts to reject objections to their argument by claiming that they are entitled to their opinion. This claim is usually uttered by people in disagreement when they have hit the wall in defending their point on its merits. It is a last ditch rhetorical device that attempts to rescue their position by defending their right to hold an opinion, no matter how ill-founded or wrong that opinion might be.
The claim exemplifies a red herring. The right to have an opinion is not what is in dispute. Whether one has a particular entitlement or right is irrelevant to whether one’s opinion is true or false. To assert the existence of the right is a failure to provide any justification for the content of the opinion. The claim also implies that all opinions are equal, which exemplifies the relativist fallacy.
The entitlement claim would be relevant only if it guaranteed the truth of your opinions. But it can’t do that, because it is an entitlement supposedly enjoyed by everybody. And people disagree. Two debaters are both entitled to their contradictory opinions about a given issue, but they can’t both be right.  So insisting that you are entitled to your opinion cannot possibly give you any logical advantage in a debate.
 The relativist fallacy, also known as the subjectivist fallacy, is claiming that something is true for one person but not true for someone else. The fallacy rests on the law of noncontradiction. The fallacy applies only to objective facts, or what are alleged to be objective facts, rather than to personal tastes or subjective experiences.
 In classical logic, the law of non-contradiction (LNC) is the second of the three classic laws of thought. It states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the two propositions ‘A is B’ and ‘A is not B’ are mutually exclusive.
Denialism should not be confused with modern scientific skepticism, which is the challenging of beliefs that are unscientific, irrational or based on insufficient evidence. Instead of denying facts, modern skeptics test claims by analysing whether they are supported by adequate empirical evidence. Denialism is the a priorirejection of ideas without objective consideration.
The philosophical skepticism of the Academic Skeptics and Pyrrhonists in Classical Greece (which was quite different to modern skepticism) consisted of doubting whether there can be any knowledge or facts at all, rather than denying particular facts.
Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature. For example, the term climate change denialist is applied to people who argue against the scientific consensus that the global warming of planet Earth is a real and occurring event primarily caused by human activity.
The term evolution denialist or ‘creationist’ is applied to people who argue against the fact that life on Earth has evolved from earlier forms, instead of having been created by a supernatural being in its current form.
The motivations and causes of denialism include irrationality, religion and self-interest (political, economic or financial), beliefs in conspiracy theories or even defence mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.