Fact and Opinion

Fact and Opinion

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In the classic 1998 film The Big Lebowski, "The Dude," played by Jeff Bridges, dismisses a boast from his bowling rival by saying, "Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man." But what does he mean by that? And why should we take an opinion less seriously?

To answer these questions, you have to distinguish opinions from facts. An opinion is an expression of personal preference or judgment. It cannot be proved true or false. If I say "Hot weather is the best," there is no way for you to prove me wrong. It's my opinion! Predictions are also considered to be opinions, so if I say "It is going to be hot tomorrow," I am expressing an opinion. This type of opinion may well prove to be true, but it cannot be treated as fact when it is made.

What is a fact, then? A fact is a statement that can be proved objectively. In other words, there is a process for determining whether the statement is true or false. There are three such processes: historical record, observation, and measurement. If I say "Abraham Lincoln was the fourteenth president," I am making a statement of fact that can be verified by looking at the historical record. And take note: if I say "Abraham Lincoln was the first president," I am still making a statement of fact, just a wrong one. Again, this is a statement of fact because it can be disproven.

Other facts can be proved or disproved with observation or measurement. If I say "The temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit," you can look at a thermometer to test my claim. If I say "That train is getting closer," you can watch the train to see if I am right. The important thing to remember is that a statement of fact can be tested, and, with a little work, it can be proved true or false. Try as you might, however, you can never disprove my statement that "Butter pecan is the tastiest flavor of ice cream." That's just my opinion.

We've put together a little quiz to test your ability to distinguish fact from opinion. Is it helpful? We think so, but that's just, like, our opinion, man.