Facts and Opinions

Facts and Opinions

Several hundred years ago, The Royal Society of London, a group of scholars, faced a serious decision. The members had to decide which kinds of studies might properly be included in the Society’s work. After debate, they decided that only those things which can be measured would be presentable on the floor of the Society.

Fields of human endeavor which are extremely important for mankind’s future were arbitrarily excluded from science. Other societies were formed to explore ideas in these non-science fields. These areas of study, excluded from science at that time, numbered among them art, music, literature, personal testimony of all kinds, the emotions, hypnosis, the interpretation of historical events, linguistics, poetry, and religion.

Furthermore, it was decided to try to have the vocabulary of science controlled to the point that individual words should have a single meaning, if possible. In non-science subjects, words are permitted to have various meanings; the word love has endless meanings, and the words of poetry often have unusual meanings the poet desires them to have. The vocabulary of science is called denotative, while that of non-science is called connotative.

Facts and Opinions

Things which can be measured include all the tangible objects (except art objects) and actions of the world around us. Up to a point, we could say that the physical and biological world lends itself to this treatment. However, when we come to man’s activities, we run into actions which cannot be measured very easily. The emotions, reverence, loyalty, hatred — intangibles in the biological world of man’s behavior — are slow in rendering their mysteries in measurable terms. For this reason, only the measurable activities of mankind are included in the natural sciences. Those measured with great difficulty or not measurable are contained in the social sciences.

Soon there arose a need for designating that which obviously existed in measurable form. Each measurement (or each combination of measurements) came to be known as “facts.” But a number of failings soon became apparent. What one person called a fact (the length of life of the tortoise, for example) proved to be often unrepresentative, or even in error. It then was necessary to re-define fact and distinguish fact from statement of fact and both of these from opinion. Since these words are used very frequently, let us settle upon the following series of definitions: A fact should be considered as an event which actually took place at a given time and place in the past, regardless of witnesses. This means that a fact can be neither true nor false — it just was. A record of its having existed (such as a photograph) can, of course, continue to exist, but that is a different fact. What is observed and said or recorded (as a photo or sworn statement or just any statement) about a past event can then be called a statement of fact. This can be true or partly true or even totally false! Opinion may or may not “fit the facts,” depending on circumstances, but because an opinion is usually based upon a person’s assumptions, less than all the facts, and statements which may or may not be true, opinions are often vastly different when given by different people. They are dependent upon the persons making them, and thus subject to error if the persons are not skilled in the area where they attempt to offer an opinion.

Offering opinions and predictions is very satisfying to the ego, particularly if the opinion is later supported by an expert or by events that unfold. But it is unfortunately true that a great many opinions are offered by people with virtually no knowledge of critical thinking. It is regrettable that opinion polls influence many large-scale activities about which the people, in giving their opinion, cannot give much more than mere hunches because full knowledge of representative data is not in their possession. It is one of the aims of education to teach people their limitations in offering opinions so that only those who have expert knowledge will be influential in directing the course of events.

Recently there came to light the inside story about the conduct of a certain jury in a baffling case at criminal law. Lacking training at law, the jury was unable to grasp the problem before it. Further complicating the situation was the unscientific behavior of the jurors, several of whom had deep-seated assumptions of persecution which arose from imagined incidents taking place during the days of secret discussion. The jury was unable to reach an agreement.

This is a striking example of the false but widespread belief (assumption ) that all individuals can legitimately offer an opinion in all fields of expert knowledge. While it is true that this interpretation of democracy is part of our legal heritage and a strong part of our philosophy of democratic action, it serves to intensify the lesson that an educated person should be selected to serve in such an important role as that of a juror, because of the importance of being able to recognize facts, statements of fact, and opinions, and because educated people are aware of their limitations when faced with a matter demanding expert knowledge.

How to bring harmony between our philosophy of democratic action and our common-sense understanding of true justice is a critical problem facing us in more areas than law. When young people focus their attention solely upon grades, and fail to establish the connection between higher learning and real life problems, it is well to cite instances of this sort. Our country’s future depends, to a large extent, upon self-education, and upon the understanding of why the educational process is important to the individual, the family, and the community.