3 in 4 Americans Have Trouble Discerning Between Fact and Opinion

From Intellectual Takeout:

A few years ago, the ACT released a study showing that K-12 teachers and college instructors believe discerning between fact and opinion is one of the most important things students can learn. Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of first-year college students are able to tell the difference between these two items.

As it turns out, discerning between fact and opinion doesn’t appear to be the sole problem of millennials. According to a recent Pew report, other Americans struggle with this task as well. Pew explains:

“A new Pew Research Center survey of 5,035 U.S. adults examines a basic step in that process: whether members of the public can recognize news as factual – something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence – or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”

The study posed ten statements to participants, five of which were factual, five of which were opinions. . . .  Only one in four adults were able to correctly identify all the factual statements.

. . . .

The author and educator Richard Weaver (1910-1963) offered some thoughts on this subject in his book Ideas Have ConsequencesAccording to Weaver, the continual bombardment of information, whether it be fact or opinion, is keeping us from discerning the core, root principles which can help us sort our thoughts:

“The whole tendency of modern thought, one might say its whole moral impulse, is to keep the individual busy with endless induction. Since the time of Bacon the world has been running away from, rather than toward, first principles, so that, on the verbal level, we see ‘fact’ substituted for ‘truth,’ and on the philosophic level, we witness attack upon abstract ideas and speculative inquiry.”

Weaver goes on to explain that even those who are able to recognize their facts may be missing the deeper meaning and thoughts which underlie and support them. The trick, notes Weaver, is not just to accumulate knowledge and facts, but to really know how to use them effectively

Link to the rest at Intellectual Takeout

25 thoughts on “3 in 4 Americans Have Trouble Discerning Between Fact and Opinion”

      • That the companies only draw their “journalists” from the 75% pool instead of the 25% pool as they are supposed to.

        For that matter, every once in a while it comes out that some prominent “reporters” are actually writers of fiction. And their supervisors can’t tell the difference.

        • “And their supervisors can’t tell the difference.”

          Oh, they know – who but fiction writers could re-spin the facts into fiction better? 😛

        • I had a depressing moment in college when I joined a club for journalism students, and the mailing list included j-students forwarding urban legends … that they didn’t know were urban legends.

          I dutifully gathered the sources (including Snopes for a TLDR version) that helpfully detailed all the ways that the urban legend couldn’t be true, and forwarded it to the kids on the list. Some of them regarded me with amazement. I was equally amazed at their lack of sleuthing skills.

          I like my reporters to be curious people. I’ll take a curious reporter over a wordsmithing one any day of the week. It turns out a lot of editors expect the reporters to be terrible writers anyway***. The priority is on inquisitiveness; the editor can always re-write the story so that it’s coherent and readable. They’re like the admirals who don’t leave the desk, they’re expecting the reporters to be the captains who go exploring (Capt. Kirk reference).

          You don’t always have to be savvy to avoid snake oil, though it helps. You can overcome a great deal of gullibility and ignorance just by being curious. Maybe schools should focus on making sure kids are never cocky about their ignorance. They should work to avoid turning off the kids’ inquisitive natures — or cultivating them if they don’t already have one.

          ***One editor griped that in her reporter days, whenever she was job hunting other editors would read her clips and ask, “Oh that line is so perfect! Who wrote that one for you?”

          • “You can overcome a great deal of gullibility and ignorance just by being curious. Maybe schools should focus on making sure kids are never cocky about their ignorance.”

            Curious kids are harder to control and they question everything, no wonder schools are drilling that out of them (and turning too many of them into clueless, mindless, walking triggers …)

  1. A few years ago, the ACT released a study showing that K-12 teachers and college instructors believe discerning between fact and opinion is one of the most important things students can learn.

    I’d be interested in how well K-12 teachers and college instructors do in discerning fact from opinion.

  2. Most people can discern between fact and opinion.

    fact is what they believe.

    opinion is what other people believe.

  3. At the site you can take their exam. I got 9 out of 10 correct. I’d argue about the one I missed, but only so I could find out where the facts lay.

    It’s a pretty good test. If you know the definition of the words used, and are willing to look beyond your biases, you should do well.

    • The first step is admitting you have biases.
      The second step is recognizing them so you can factor them into your reality analysis.

      Too many people never get to the first step, much less the second.

    • I knew the one about spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid was phrased as a factual statement, but I thought it was incorrect. Turns out the information I remembered was based on discretionary Federal spending rather than the full Federal budget. I’m not sure if that’s the question you’re referring to, but I thought the information was interesting enough to share. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/aug/17/facebook-posts/pie-chart-federal-spending-circulating-internet-mi/

      • Notice that 1% is “NASA and Science” which includes NAS spending and a lot of SillyScience pork barrel set-asides.

        NASA itself is a minor fraction of even that 1%.

        • Oh yes, I forgot to include the NSF in the listing of non-NASA “science” spending alongside the goldfish studies.

      • It doesn’t matter if it’s incorrect. A fact can be true or false: it just has to be something you can look into and verify as true or false. I can say the lemon is purple when it is yellow, but saying, “The lemon on the table is bright purple” is verifiable. 🙂

        I remembered that from logic class aeons ago. So, yeah, I got 5 out of 5 facts and joined the 26% who got them all right. 🙂

        • “It doesn’t matter if it’s incorrect”

          Indeed, that’s the whole point of the test; it’s really just a matter of logic/language appreciation, so we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on being in the 26%. Maybe though we should despair about the education received and/or thought processes of the other 74%?

  4. I got two wrong – not bad for someone who doesn’t live in the US. 🙂

    Hey PG … I still have to do the Name/email/URI every time I want to post a comment … any clues as to why?

    • Why does living the in the US matter to telling fact from opinion?

      Oh, and I also have to enter name/email every time….been that way for a spell.

      • I also have to enter the name/email every time but fortunately this is only a minimal effort as Chrome remembers them for me and pops up suggestions when I click in the name box.

        And you are of course right that living in the US does not matter in this case; I think a lot of people where probably trying to work out if the “fact” was correct rather than whether it was a – possibly incorrect – factual statement.

    • It’s that EU bit about PG’s site not saving any of your data, it’s not a bug it’s a feature! 😉

  5. I’m pleased to see Richard Weaver’s name mentioned. I highly recommend his books to those who wish to write well.

    Weaver was a rhetorician, rhetoric being the art of persuasive speech. A Southerner, Weaver taught at the University of Chicago. He wrote for students a handbook on rhetoric and composition that was used throughout the country for many years.

    His best-known book, mentioned above, is Ideas Have Consequences. My favorite book of his is The Ethics of Rhetoric, but Language is Sermonic is excellent too.

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