Thursday, 28 June 2018

Distinguishing between fact and opinion

Only a quarter of Americans can tell the difference between facts and opinions, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

My initial response to this finding was one of surprise. I was surprised that it was so high. Anyone who pays attention to the US political media elite will have come across countless examples of highly educated members of the American elite representing opinions as facts and pretending that facts are mere opinions. One even comes across American university professors who, with obvious sincerity, present opinions as though they were facts. In a society where even the best educated cannot apparently tell the difference between fact and opinion, it is amazing that Pew could find in a representative sample so many Americans who could. The implication would appear to be that the political media elite are deliberately eliding the distinction between fact and opinion.

There is another possibility, which is that because the study made it obvious that it was testing the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and defined the terms, and then immediately presented statements that were easily categorised, the study inevitably over estimates the ability of Americans to make the distinction. If this suggestion strikes you as overly cynical, I can only invite you to take the quiz for yourself.

This widespread inability to distinguish between fact and opinion probably helps to explain why the completely evidence-free, constantly changing, nonsense that is Russia-gate is apparently believed by so many Americans. Russia-gate is, of course, only the tip of a very large iceberg of supposedly factual narratives that are believed by millions of Americans despite a lack of evidential support. Such narratives are pushed daily by all the major news media (which in the US are owned and controlled by a mere handful of corporations). Daily readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, viewers of CNN and MSNBC are fed a diet of false stories that present opinions as facts.

When the whole of the political media elite sees its role as propagandising, it is hardly surprising that people give up on facts and simply select the narratives that conform to their existing biases and interests, and decide their own opinions are fact, and the claims of others are mere opinions. This latter point is brought out in the statistical analysis of the Pew study. Republicans were likely to rate opinions they agreed with as facts, and opinions they disagreed with as opinions. Similarly they were likely to rate facts they agreed with as facts and facts they disagreed with as opinions. The same tendency was demonstrated by Democrats. These are deeply depressing findings, for they strongly suggest that it is impossible to persuade by the use of facts. And a society that no longer values facts is but a step away from deciding every issue by nothing other than force.

No comments:

Post a Comment