Facts / Opinions / Evidence / Truth

Justin P McBrayer[1] recently posted an op-ed piece with the NYTimes called Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts [2] where he relates the following:

“When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

“Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

“Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

“…So what’s wrong with this distinction and how does it undermine the view that there are objective moral facts?

“First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.

“But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both. For example, I asked my son about this distinction after his open house. He confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed. We then had this conversation:

“Me: ‘I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?’

“Him: ‘It’s a fact.’

“Me: ‘But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.’

“Him: ‘Yeah, but it’s true.’

“Me: ‘So it’s both a fact and an opinion?’

“The blank stare on his face said it all.”[3]

To quote one of the great rhetoricians of our era:


“Facts,” “truth,” “evidence,” and “opinion” are not the same thing. They may overlap when referring to concrete examples, but that’s a function of language, not reality.

Facts, so to speak, are the atoms of reality: They is what they is. They carry no moral weight of judgment, no meaning in and of themselves. A fact either is or it is not.

Truth is the summation of several facts in conjunction or juxtaposition against one another. The “truth” of water, for example, is a summation of several facts about it: Its molecular formula, the pressure and temperature points where it freezes or vaporizes, the way it interacts with other molecules, etc., etc., and of course, etc.

Evidence are facts assembled to produce a truth, either in whole or in part.

Opinion is a belief, preferably based on informed knowledge about the facts and evidence before one, that makes a presumption about what truth is.

Fact: I was born

Opinion A: I was born within the borders of the United States at that time

Opinion B: I was not born within the borders of the United States at that time

Without fact based evidence to prove either Opinion A or Opinion B, they are both equally valid assumptions.

I’m the flippin’ Schroedinger’s Cat of procreation, and lacking facts in evidence my birth within / without the borders of the US are equally valid opinions.

Only one of those opinions is true, of course.

And all the logic, rhetoric, assembled supporting evidence, sincerity of belief, and numbers of believers does not alter the factual truth one iota.

There are no moral “facts”, but there are moral “truths”.

Unlike facts which can be fixed in time and space, truth does not need observable concrete evidence to be true or not.

There was no cup of coffee on my desk an hour ago, there is a cup of coffee on my desk now, there will be an empty cup on my desk in an hour are all valid statements of fact even though they do not represent the same exact thing. They can be assembled to form a truth about my having a cup of coffee while working.

Or more precisely, they can be assembled to produce an opinion about the truth; for all you know I’m just shining you on about the coffee, the desk, and me working. Or more precisely still, the truth is that it’s possible for me to drink coffee, and that truth remains unalterable regardless of the facts of my coffee drinking / non-drinking.

McBrayer wants to have his imaginary cake and make you eat it. George Washington’s status as the first president of the US stands independent of McBrayer’s belief, no matter how much evidence he assembles to prove it. He is right in his opinion -- this time.

But he could just as sincerely believe even more and better evidence of other facts and assemble them into a conclusion that is not the truth.

It drives hard line moralists nuts to live in a universe where their opinions are not automatically revered and treated as fact, but to quote another great rhetorician:

“Dem’s da conditions wot prevails.”




[1] Yeah, I know: “Who?” Bear with me, I gotta fill a quota on this blog and this one’s an easy pop fly.

[2] Probably for the same reason they don’t think there’s any dry water, either; McBrayer is using mutually contradictory terms.

[3]  Congratulations, Justin, for opening a can of pseudo-intellectual whup-ass on your seven year old...

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