As a former teacher of information literacy for first-year students, one of the hardest things I had to teach was fact vs opinion. Take any ‘hot’ topic — abortion, the death penalty — and people are quick to tell you their opinion as if it were the ‘truth’ about the topic. And those opinions are polar. These topics elicit a right/wrong response, when the topics are complex and not easily analyzed, especially when the opinions are ’emotionally motivated.’
On a less emotional level, I tried to teach fact vs opinion through research articles, particularly scientific ones which are very clear about separating fact and fiction. A typical scientific article offers four sections, starting with the Introduction, which includes describing the purpose of the research and usually providing a brief literature review to reveal what has been studied and where the current article ‘fits’. That can be a mix of fact and opinion.
The next section, Method(s), ‘must’ be all fact. The goal is to lay out what steps were taken in a way that allows the reader to reproduce the method in its entirety, thereby verifying or refuting the results. There can be no opinion in this section.
Similarly, Results are also all fact. The goal is to describe what was discovered. This resulted, that resulted, this data emerged, and so on. What the author(s) think about those results is not included here.
Finally, Discussion and Conclusion gives the opinion ‘based’ exclusively on the results, outlining the limitations of the study, and suggesting possible next studies that someone, either the author(s) or other researchers, might undertake.
Getting students to exclude opinion, especially at the age of eighteen or so, is a challenge. Used to conflating fact and opinion, they submit written sentences that scatter opinion everywhere, sometimes not even validated by whatever results they are supposedly analyzing.
They often present ‘because’ statements, e.g., ‘abortion is wrong because it’s murder’ or ‘abortion is right because someone’s been raped,’ but these are still opinions and need to be backed up with data. In the case of social sciences, that data is often in the form of survey results where a researcher has structured a survey that is as unbiased as possible and has amassed a viable number of respondents. ‘What do the data tell us?’ I ask, but, often, students by-pass data because it takes ‘thinking’ which might shake their opinion, if not change it.
And keeping surveys as unbiased as possible is harder and harder these days. I receive ‘surveys’ in the mail that are completely biased on purpose, whether they support the efforts of a political party or a charitable organization about the environment. If you look at the ‘questions’ it’s easy to tell that there’s only one obvious answer. This is not, I repeat not, a survey of any merit whatsoever. And it weakens the effort to teach students about the importance of beginning with as little bias as possible, knowing that there will always be some bias and that more will creep in through the course of whatever study is underway.
The importance of analysis, real analysis, grows daily, yet more and more often I hear ‘I’m entitled to my opinion.’ I could write an entire other essay on the subject of ‘entitlement,’ but in this context, I argue that I’m only ‘entitled’ to my opinion if I can back it up with fact.