Facts, Opinions, and Theories: How to Talk about Them to Students
With students - undergraduate and graduate level alike - there is a basic confusion of what is a fact, what is an opinion, when they should be used.
A young student approached me recently, for example, surprised she could include in discussion her own opinion of a character in the story and that opinion could differ from mine, the instructor’s. Also common is to take cultural values—“Capitalism is the best economic system”--as factual, a given, that does not need to be defended. Then words like “theory,” “law,” “subjective”and“objective” further muddy things at higher levels. Misconceptions surrounding these terms are rampant. Part of concern is that the terms themselves exist in some way on a continuum: for example, if enough evidence exists to support my opinion, and enough people agree with me, does it actually begin to somehow enter the realm of fact? It is actually not a given, not factual, that capitalism is the best system; wouldn’t most reasonable people agree, however, that war is a negative and should be a last resort in terms of relations between two countries? Would that enter the realm of “fact”?
Definitions of these Terms
A fact is something verifiable and not arguable: University of the Pacific is in Stockton, California. I can pull out a map and show you, and it is very difficult to argue the point with me without seeming a little crazy.
An opinion is arguable. University of the Pacific is a beautiful campus. I can show you pictures of the campus and support my opinion by describing the lawns, the trees, gardens, and the buildings; however you can still disagree with me, claiming, for example, that brick buildings in your opinion are ugly, and not seem crazy.
A theory, in the scientific sense, is a best description of the facts, of why something is. The theory of evolution uses the fossil record and DNA analysis to describe how life developed. This is different from the everyday use of the word: “I have a theory about why my husband is always late,” meaning I have a guess or supposition about his behavior not built on evidence.
A law is a theory that has been proven numerous times, such as the law of gravity. Long after the fall of an apple gave Newton the inspiration for his theory of gravity, apples continue to fall down from trees. They don’t defy the law and fall up. If they did, the law would have to be revisited.
True objectivity is without bias, without perspective, reporting events as they occur. We think of a camera’s view as objective, taking in a room, for example, exactly as it appears.
Something that is subjective is from a particular perspective and bias. All human reporters are subjective—even a camera, in the hands of a human photographer, becomes subjective—recording a room, a church at a wedding, in a certain way and, through the use of light, for example, making the room more beautiful than it might seem in other circumstances.
Common Misconceptions about Fact and Opinion
Opinions are Bad; Facts are Good
An old TV program featured a detective who, on interviewing witnesses on a case, would insist, “Just the facts, Ma’am” when the witness began rambling on with her perceptions. Actually, detectives don’t go around crime scenes gathering “facts” from the public—the reason they would talk to the public would be mostly because they are interested in people’s opinions of the crime. Why would the police go to the neighbor and ask about the victim’s comings and goings to just to learn that the victim left home at 8:30 am every day and came back at 5:30 pm without fail? Why wouldn’t they want to hear the neighbor’s opinion on the victim’s comings and goings—that the neighbor thought the victim was crashing bore, for example? Whether or not this is “true,” it does reveal something about both the victim and neighbor; it’s valuable information. Facts police can usually gather themselves.
All Opinions are Equal
My mother recently didn’t want to hear her doctor’s opinion on her case—it was just an opinion. I tried to explain to her that the opinion of her doctor pertaining to her health was qualitatively different from mine, for example, or her granddaughter’s, or even her son-in-law’s, who is a doctor but not in the correct specialty in this case. I don’t know how much I got through to her.
Similarly, students, especially at lower levels, think that they shouldn’t include their opinion—it’s just an opinion, and of no worth. On the contrary, that’s what your reader generally wants to hear—your thesis is your opinion—supported, of course. Even when I as your teacher tell you “Describe the University of Pacific,” I am really asking for your opinion. I don’t want to hear “University of the Pacific is in Stockton, California and is a small private campus with several thousand students.” I know all of that or can easily learn it from the university website. I want to hear your opinion of it. Facts in this case make for dull writing because the writer can’t develop the ideas: I can do nothing with “University of the Pacific is in Stockton.” So what? “University of the Pacific is an excellent small, liberal arts school” is something that can be developed, and here is where facts are important—as the details, not the main ideas. Give the student population details as support for the quality of the school, not as main ideas of themselves.
Writing Should be Based on “Facts”
Most writing actually is opinion. You would probably not want to read an essay that recounted “just the facts” of the life of Abraham Lincoln, for example. It is the writer’s particular take and perspective on his life and how he managed his marriage, the country, and the war that is interesting.
A Human Writer can be Objective
Some people pride themselves on somehow doing this, being “objective.” This isn’t possible. The facts that I was born female, American, and in the latter part of the 20th century inform how I view the world and how I write. The best I can do is acknowledging my perspective and biases and try for balance and objectivity.
Bias is Bad
The very term “bias” has an ugly sound to many Americans, conjuring up images from the pre Civil-Rights era, perhaps, where “bias” was something that intruded in the lives of many Americans in a negative way. “Bias” actually just means a predisposition for or against something; again, we all hold it, based on past experiences. My own bias in terms of housing, for example, is of single-family units in suburban neighborhoods. That is what I grew up with; that’s what I picture when someone says “house.”
How to Teach Fact/Opinion Continuum
Teach the definitions of different terms. Use examples. In this way students can begin differentiate their use of the terms.
In reading, ask students to point out facts and opinions. Which seem to be verifiable facts in the reading? What points can be argued?
When reading, ask students to evaluate a writer’s viewpoint. What seems to be his perspective? What are her biases?
When reading, ask students to evaluate the quality of opinions and how well they are supported.
When writing, get students in the habit of being critical of their own biases. Are they taking too many things as given? Do they need to support their ideas more?
Teaching the art of evaluating facts and opinions and applying them appropriately isn’t easy, but if teachers get into the habit of helping students examine their reading in these terms, and to apply them to their own writing, they will become critical thinkers and writers.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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