Fact, opinion, or B.S.?

Masato Kajimoto
Apr 1, 2019 · 4 min read

Nowadays some medial literacy awareness campaigns often focus on the accuracy and factualness of information, such as the one you see below from UNESCO.

They tell internet users not to share inaccurate messages… but the problem is, things are not really that clear-cut in real life.

If someone messages you and says, “Japanese food is healthier than Chinese food,” is this a fact? If you agree with the person, you might say, “yeah, that’s true. I prefer Japanese food because it’s healthy.”

If you disagree, on the other hand, you might say, “that’s not true at all. Chinese food uses a lot more vegetables.”

Such a statement is mostly just an opinion but people tend to bring in their own knowledge, past experience, and even personal likings into the mix when deciding what is true and what is not.

Not just news but all types of information and messages are a mixture of facts and opinions at the same time.

Let’s take a look at another example. What should we make of a message like below on the day our city’s daily air pollution index hit a record high?

“Worst air quality in history today. Avoid going out or risk losing five years of your life expectancy. #governmentfail”

The first part is a piece of information that can be backed up with scientific data. We can look up the record and decide whether the statement is factual or not. Yes, the document shows we have the worst air quality in history today. Easy.

But what about the second part — “avoid going out or risk losing five years of your life expectancy”? Is this an evidence-based fact? Or an opinion?

If you say it’s a fact, what sort of evidence does this claim need for everyone to agree that it is not disputable?

Or is it an opinion? If so, whose opinion is it?

It is not uncommon for medical experts to discuss statistics in this fashion for ordinary people to understand the impact of health hazards.

Smoking would be a good case in point. It does shorten one’s longevity and it is a scientifically proven fact.

Let’s suppose that there is a consensus in the medical community that today’s air pollution level is extremely serious and it could inflict some serious damage in one’s lung, making it likely for people to die younger.

Now, is the second sentence a fact or an opinion?

And the hashtag? Is air pollution really a result of our government’s inadequate measures? How can you prove it? Perhaps government supporters say it’s an opinion but people who think the government could have done more might say it is a fact.

What if we can actually compare how the government has been handling the air pollution problems with other neighboring countries’ efforts with some official records? And the data shows our government has been doing very little in comparison?

Now, is this hashtag a reflection of facts or an opinion based on facts?

Given the precarious nature of this message, which can be taken as too alarmist, or even “fake news” by the government supporters, should we refrain from hitting that share button?

But it’s true that air is bad and hazardous, right? That much is certain. So, what’s wrong with trying to alert our loved ones by sharing this social media message?

If you think the information above is complicated, how about this one?

“Hong Kong has one of the most efficient public transportation systems in the world, according to the 2018 World Transportation Index by OECD.”

Is this a fact or an opinion? Let’s see what Kelly and AJ think in the following video:

Falsely attributing information to a credible source is more common than you might think. Making stuff up and then say it’s from a reliable source is one of the common techniques false news stories adopt.

Legitimate news stories don’t do that, of course, but differentiating facts from opinions is not as easy as you might think.

In the Strapline video, AJ showed Kelly a headline that depicted the recent Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam as a “collapse.”

As Kelly said, it is a fact that the President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of North Korea didn’t reach any type of agreement after the meeting — but is it also true that the meeting was a failure, or a “collapse”?

The word surely gives a certain impression of the event beyond the fact — do you agree? Is the failure of the summit then a fact or an opinion?

Separating facts from opinions requires a nuanced understanding of what constitutes objective evidence, which is the topic of the next episode, but for now, we should realize that while there is nothing wrong with sharing opinions, people might mistake them as facts.

For Teachers

  • Facts are something that can be proven with objective evidence.
  • What we think about the facts or how we describe the facts can be considered opinions.
  • News stories normally have both facts and opinions (and sometimes they also contain questionable non-facts).

Students will be able to tell facts from opinions (or bogus information) within a news story.

  • Divide students into small discussion groups.
  • Ask each group to pick any news article from an established media outlet.
  • Tell them to highlight each piece of information in the story in different colors based on its nature. For example; “facts” in yellow, “opinion” in green, “not sure” in orange.
  • Ask them to discuss their rationals for their judgment and research the “not sure” category to find out more about the information.
  • As a class, discuss the nuances and difficulties of separating facts from opinions.

Originally published at strapline.org on April 1, 2019.


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