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. (Take the quiz here.) Only one in four adults were able to correctly identify all the factual statements.
Such news, of course, is quite alarming, particularly in an age when we are saturated with headlines and opinions from everyone under the sun through various social media channels. None of us want to be taken in by false ideas… but how can we avoid doing so given the culture in which we live?
The author and educator Richard Weaver (1910-1963) offered some thoughts on this subject in his book Ideas Have Consequences. According 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:
“It is not what people can read; it is what they do read, and what they can be made, by any imaginable means, to learn from what they read, that determine the issue of this noble experiment. We have given them a technique of acquisition; how much comfort can we take in the way they employ it? In a society where expression is free and popularity is rewarded they read mostly that which debauches them and they are continuously exposed to manipulation by controllers of the printing machine…. It may be doubted whether one person in three draws what may be correctly termed knowledge from his freely chosen reading matter. The staggering number of facts to which he today has access serves only to draw him away from consideration of first principles, so that his orientation becomes peripheral.”
If you are one who can take Pew’s fact and opinion quiz and successfully pass, then you are a step ahead of three-quarters of Americans. The question is, what will you do with that knowledge? Will you use it simply as a badge of honor and superiority… or are you one of the even fewer number of Americans willing to go deeper and consider the difficult thoughts, the challenging ideas, and the other aspects from which these facts stem?
Perhaps it’s time we start training both ourselves and our children to do the latter.
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Flickr-Maarten van Maanen CC BY-SA 2.0