I’ve observed over the years that most people don’t quite know the difference between a fact an an opinion. They don’t quite grasp the sometimes-subtle distinction between a fact and a theory. A fact and a meme. A fact and a judgment.
First off, a fact is — by definition — neutral. A fact cannot be mean spirited or rude, nor can it be kind. A fact cannot be racist, nor sexist. A fact cannot be fair, nor can it be unfair. A fact is not influenced by your perceptions, though hopefully the inverse is true. A fact is not truth.
Black people in America, proportionately, commit more violent crime than white people. This is not a racist statement — it cannot be racist; it is a fact. There are hard numbers to back it up, and unlike many statistics, the math is straightforward. If I take that fact and use it as a basis for judging individual blacks about whom I otherwise know nothing, that is racism; but it’s racist theory and opinion — the underlying fact does not change.
If I say a person is ugly (or beautiful), that is an opinion. If I say premeditated murder is illegal, that is a fact. If I say murder is wrong, that is an opinion (albeit a widely held one.)
There are situations wherein one group will claim a fact is a judgment, by claiming that the use of a word is, by definition bad. “Retarded” is a good example — it is a perfectly, factually accurate word to describe the mental state of certain people. The word itself means that something has been held back, or impeded; so “mentally retarded” simply means that in that particular person, normal human mental development has somehow been held back or impeded. It is a factual, neutral term. (To make the point further — anyone can be “mentally challenged”. Einstein was mentally challenged when he came up with relativity.)
You frequently hear statements that purport to be the “truth”. I tend to ignore any such argument. Why? The difficulty there is that “truth” can mean many things — it is a flexible term that can be used to mean just about anything you want it to. Philosophers talk about “truth”. Preachers talk about “truth”. Politicians often talk about “truth”. Many reporters (unfortunately) look for “truth”. “Truth” is what you believe to be true, or what you want to be true. If you look for “truth” you are likely to fall into the trap of coming to a conclusion and then cherry-picking only that which supports the idea. Science looks at facts.
I always liked the bit in the old Dragnet television show where Sgt. Friday wanted “just the facts”. He was good because his thought process wasn’t clouded in his search for “the truth” — he only wanted to talk about facts. Not opinions, not what the person thought about the situation. This point is also stressed in the TV show CSI, in the character Gil Grissom’s mantra, “The evidence never lies”. Witnesses can mislead you with opinions, lies, or simply errors, but the physical evidence is fact. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes puts it:
From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.”
Logic and facts are a powerful combination. Doyle’s statement is true because, simply put, that drop of water is a fact. If that same hypothetical logician had bad information that he believes to be fact, that same logic could lead him it a completely different place.
There is a place in common discourse for opinions, and judgment, and theory; but if you do not want to be misled, look for that distinction. In news reporting, opinion and theory are frequently reported as news. This is a mistake. “Hard News” reporting should be based on fact, and nothing more. There is room in such outlets for editorial pieces (opinion again), but it must remain distinct. If a politician tells you to believe in something because everybody else already agrees with it, beware. Facts are not dictated by popularity; facts are often decidedly unpopular (just ask Galileo). Besides that, if a politician is trying to convince you that everybody believes something, he wouldn’t be wasting his time unless he knew that a whole lot of people do not believe it — it’s a self-fulfilling falsehood.
Facts are not influenced by belief, nor convenience, nor popularity. They are not warm and fuzzy; they are hard and cold. They are reality — unvarnished, and raw.
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
‘Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials’