Monday, October 21, 2013

A primer on facts, opinions, and lies

To quote the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts."

Sadly, too many people these days confuse "opinion" with "fact" -- wholesale believing what they hear on opinion shows or in opinion columns as fact, without bothering to see if the information is factual or not (or an outright lie).

Maybe it's because my first job was as a fact checker (at a national magazine, back in the days when magazines still employed fact checkers), but I have always had a high regard for facts -- and have always searched out the truth, to trust but verify, before casting my lot.

So for those of you who may be a bit fuzzy on the difference between a "fact," an "opinion," and a "lie," here's a quick primer:

A fact is a true piece of information, something that can be proven or verified. For example, that 2 + 2 = 4 is a fact. And in general, most things mathematical or scientific or that can be proven are facts. Here's another non-scientific example: On Saturday I picked up seven shirts at the dry cleaner's. (Not only can at least two other people prove I was there, the dry cleaner has a record of my picking up and paying for our shirts.)

An opinion, on the other hand, is a belief or a generally held view. For example, it may be your opinion that a certain baseball player used performance enhancing drugs. But without concrete evidence, it is not a fact. (See how tricky these things can be?)

And a lie is an untrue statement, the opposite of a fact, spoken or written with the intent to deceive. Granted some lies are more harmless than others -- I can say I am 5'3", which may be true with shoes on, but I am really only 5'1.75" -- but they are still lies.

Granted, you can see how someone with a strong belief or opinion about something can regard said opinion as a fact, or get someone else to believe it a fact, especially when it is repeated over and over again, but that still does not make it a fact.

So why am I bothering to bring up these distinctions?

Because while I am no longer surprised by politicians, celebrities, and athletes lying, I am surprised by how many people wholesale believe these lies -- people's willful ignorance of the facts, if you will.

Maybe before the existence of fact checkers and the Internet people could be forgiven for believing an impassioned speaker or charismatic politician or snake oil salesman, but today, when at least the claims of politicians can be easily fact checked -- by independent, nonpartisan organizations such as and It boggles my mind -- and saddens me.

Not that it will change your mind, or how you vote, but as a service to your fellow Americans, remember that a fact is something that is true, not because you want or wish it to be but because it is, that can be proven. So if you are not sure of something you heard or read, try to verify it, through an independent organization (not Fox News or Matt Drudge). If it cannot be proven -- if there is no reliable data to back up the claim -- it is either an opinion or a lie.

Remember, there are no "your facts" and "my facts," just simply facts.


Anonymous said...

I have a couple of right wing friends on FB who constantly post 'news stories' from VERY suspect sites. When I post proof that these stories aren't just inaccurate but out right lies, I am told -'well, that is your opinion' No it isn't-it is the FACTS!!!!!!


Dave S. said...

This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Lawrence of Arabia, delivered by Claude Rains as Dryden:

"A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it."

GSA said...

It's a sad commentary on our civilization that you needed to write that blog. But how right you are.

Furbo said...

One of my favorite songs back in the day... I used to sing lead on this one :-)

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don't stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape