Fact or Opinion — Americans Can't Tell the Difference
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
“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.” —John Adams (1770)
The findings of a study released this week by Pew Research should be of concern to those who believe in America’s quarter-millennium experiment in self-government. In an 1816 letter to Charles Yancey, Thomas Jefferson famously declared, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Yet according to the Pew study, Americans are increasingly unable to differentiate between fact and opinion.
The study presented those surveyed with five factual statements (assertions that can be proven through observable evidence) and five opinion statements (expressions of values or beliefs), plus two “borderline” statements that could go either way. Respondents were asked to correctly identify which statements were factual and which were opinion. It should be noted that a factual statement may not be an accurate statement. For example, the survey statement, “Health care costs per person in the U.S. are the highest in the developed world,” is presented as definitively true, but its accuracy can be proven or disproven by various sources and data.
Of the 5,035 American adults who participated in the study, more than half were able to correctly identify at least three of the five factual and opinion statements correctly. Broadly speaking, those who were very interested in the news, those who were “digitally savvy” (comfortable navigating computers, smart devices and the Internet), and those with a high political awareness did better at differentiating fact from opinion.
But only 26% were able to correctly identify all five factual statements as such, and only 35% recognized all five opinion statements as opinion. Both self-identified Republicans and self-identified Democrats were more likely to believe an opinion statement as fact if the statement supported their ideological leanings.
We live in a nation that has become highly polarized politically, and we are simultaneously bombarded with a tsunami of media outlets, from mainstream/legacy media like CBS and The New York Times to aggregators like The Drudge Report to blogs of every conceivable flavor and bent. Increasingly, Americans gravitate toward news and opinion sources that cater to their personal biases.
One factor is the miserable state of education in the United States. Despite the highest per-student spending in the industrialized world, American students struggle to stay middle-of-the-pack in academic achievement as compared to their global peers. Too many students struggle to read and compute at grade level. They are taught to regurgitate what they are told rather than to use logic and reason to determine fact and truth. In other words, they are taught what to think rather than how to think.
This is compounded by a media universe that no longer presents news truthfully, much less objectively. News is presented with an ideological/political bias, twisting facts to comport with political agendas, and omitting relevant facts that might undermine a political narrative.
This dearth of objective, factual news, combined with an inability to reason, creates destructive dynamics in the social sphere. It renders large sections of the population incapable of engaging in reasoned debate without shouting down those who disagree with them. It increasingly leads to violence. Grown adults hear something that offends them and they become “micro-aggressed” and “triggered,” running to their “safe spaces” (stocked with crayons and Teddy bears and snacks) to escape reality.
This must change, or it will bring about the downfall of our republic (fact check: America is a republic, not a democracy). American citizens must become well-versed in logic, reason, language, history and civics, to name but a few. It is impossible to reach a compromise on public policy when we can’t even agree on a set of facts. True education (as opposed to the progressive indoctrination that too often passes for “education” in our schools and colleges) enlightens, elucidates and civilizes. It brings about peaceful solutions to complex and contentious problems.
These universal truths were succinctly summed up by James Madison in an 1822 letter to W.T. Barry, declaring, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”