Fact or Opinion? The Difference Matters
Updated: Sep 11
Having personal viewpoints would be fine, if we did not so often assert our opinions as facts.
We assume we speak the truth and believe our truth is right, but our subjective “truth” is just how we see things.
For example, one friend might say to another, “I know you enjoy beach reads on vacation; I prefer reading biographies.” Nobody is right; nobody is wrong. There is such a thing as your truth and my truth. This is subjective truth.
Subjective truth is based on the assessments we make of people and things. Our assessments may be benign. For example, I might say, “I like a splash of cranberry juice in my water.” Or “I don’t like the way they make pizza at Nick’s.” Both statements may sound very far from your truth, but at least you do not sense judgment hearing my preferences, right? (You probably noticed my “I-language.” To say “I don’t like that…” is very different from saying “that’s awful.”)
Pain is caused when we assert our personal assessments as though they are facts.
Let’s say my neighbor Sandra asserts: “Taylor is lazy,” or “John is smart,” “Austin is power-hungry,” “Izzy is not a good fit for their job,” “Kelly is homophobic,” “Maria is white supremacist,” “Jacob is perfectionist,” “Sara is sweet” “Ash is trustworthy.” As listeners, hearing any of these claims, we must remind ourselves: we have not learned anything at all about the people being assessed. We have only learned about Sandra.
We all make judgments. We get narrow-minded and see things one way. Once we form an opinion about something or someone, we tend to hold our opinions as noble certainties. Then we start seeing everything as evidence to back up our personal judgments.
We can avoid pain (both giving and receiving) by remembering that subjective truths do not belong to the person or thing observed. Rather, assessments belong to the observer; they tell us more about the observer than the person or thing being observed.
How might we communicate more effectively?
Awareness is everything.
Let’s also consider objective truth.
Objective truth is about the thing observed; it’s not personal nor tied to the observer. If I say, “Nick’s Pizza is located on Ascan Avenue, right off Austin Street.” That’s objectively true. Or, “Shondell is 5 ft 6 inches tall.” That’s objectively true. It’s a fact about Shondell; it tells you about Shondell’s height, not about me.
What if I sound really certain when I assert: “Shondell is way too short to play basketball?”
That’s my subjective opinion, not fact, right? In other words, no matter how much authority I inject in my tone, you’re only hearing my judgment. Shondell may well be a ‘rock star’ on the court!
Objective statements are either true or false, regardless of whether we know it, like it or believe it. Objective truths—facts—belong to the thing observed.
Facts are independent of personal awareness. Someone could be going way above the speed limit, get pulled over, lament that they didn’t know the speed limit, and still get a ticket. Objective facts (like the speed limit) are true even when we don’t know it.
Facts are independent of desires. Boston winters can drag well into May. The first winter I spent in Boston, when April came, I was still bundling up to go outside because it was snowing, whereas the locals were wearing shorts and complaining, “I can’t believe it’s snowing!” The snow fell whether anyone liked it (or dressed for it) or not.
Facts are independent of beliefs. To say, “I refuse to believe it’s snowing” has no effect whatsoever on the snowfall. Why? Facts are facts, even if we can't believe it.
Facts are discovered not invented. Gravity was a discovery; we didn’t invent it.
Here you have it:
Assessments are true for some and not for others. Assessments are invented.
Facts are true for everyone, whether we know it, like it, or believe it. Facts are discovered.
Why does all this matter?
When we assert our opinions as though they are facts, we contribute to misunderstanding, harm, division and pain. If we are not careful, our assessments can disconnect us from objective truth.
Staying in the dark about this closes the door to possibilities for new understandings and meaningful relationships. Too often we blow past the opportunity to expand what we know, because we are blind to the assessments we carry; we fail to ask questions that could help us better understand the person being assessed.
Is something true because I feel like it? No, it’s true if it is provable.
There is good news: assessments change.
Whew! With this awareness, we can learn to observe both the good and bad assessments people articulate and remain grounded. We can acknowledge, “I hear your opinion,” mindful that it is only an assessment. It is not true/false and it is changeable.
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Melinda Lackey is Co-founder and Director of SEED Impact, which has coached hundreds of nonprofit initiatives to communicate and coordinate action more efficiently, sustain higher performance and report greater social impact. Content on assessment vs facts drawn from the Newfield Network; content on objective truth from a sermon by Fr. Mike Schmitz.