Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Fact and Opinion — Telling the Difference

It’s amazing how many people fail to understand the differences in reliability among various kinds of thought. Back in the day, when I used to teach report writing to cops, one of the most difficult parts of an especially difficult task was getting them to understand those distinctions, and how to avoid confusing them in their official capacity.

As I’ve begun to look deeper into my own behavior and that of others over the intervening years, I’ve come to see even more clearly how such misunderstandings lead to problems. Many (if not most) people have difficulty discerning facts from opinions in the things that they hear and read. Even when talking about things that they have themselves witnessed, they have trouble separating their observations from their conclusions and judgments about what they have seen. [Example: “That thievin’ bitch stole that other girl’s purse and ran away!” We don’t actually know whose purse it was. The “thievin’ bitch” may have been retrieving her own property, and the other girl may have been the culprit.]

We need to consider two uses of language, briefly: extensional and intensional ideas. Extensional ideas are those for which we could cover our mouths and point. [That tree. That person. That house.] Intensional ideas require the use of words to define them. [A house is a structure consisting of walls of some kind, a roof, and most often utilized for shelter.] As you can see, when we reach the stage of communication that requires more than pointing, a great many variables come into play. My description of a house is limited at best, and pretty inadequate as far as any kind of real understanding is concerned. We immediately wonder what it’s made of, what color it’s painted (if at all), where it is, how big, how it was constructed, who lives there, for how long, why they chose that location — and on, and on.

This brings us to reports. To the extent possible, reports — whether a book report, scientific treatise, or a cop’s description of a crime scene — properly contain only information that is verifiable.

[A (particular) widow was broken. The glass was primarily scattered inside. There was blood on the window sill. There was no blood on the ground. Partial bloody footprints led from the window, through the door, across the hall to the bathroom. A bloody towel was found in the bath tub. Another towel was missing from the rack, according to the homeowner. The kitchen door, which the owner stated had been locked, was unlocked and ajar.]

In one way or another, through witnesses, photographs, or perhaps a tour of the scene, all of those statements are verifiable.

From the example, we can draw some inferences. Someone lacked a key, or did not want to use one, or had some other reason for breaking the window. They probably broke the window from outside and climbed through, sustaining at least one moderately severe cut in the process. They went to the bathroom and stanched the flow of blood with one towel, wrapped the wound with the missing towel, and left the house via the kitchen door.

Although not necessarily accurate, these are valid inferences. Other possibilities: someone broke the window, cutting someone else who was already inside; there was more than one person who came through the window; someone remained outside; someone opened a previously-existing wound while climbing in, and did not sustain a cut at all, and so forth. These, however, should not be inferred from the information. Here, as in all such situations, the inference that most closely conforms to the evidence should be pursued until other information contradicts it. This seems obvious, but few of us employ this kind of thinking effectively.

There are a number of judgments that we might be tempted to make about this situation, none of which would be valid. Furthermore, our judgments would not necessarily agree with those of others: the person who broke the window and entered was a burglar; he was clumsy; he intended to commit a crime, but left after being injured. We might even go so far as to hazard guesses about age, ethnicity, social class, and other matters. None of these “conclusions” are supported by the facts as stated.

These are some of the differences and pitfalls associated with a simple set of facts. As in all such situations, it is critical — if we are to understand what really happened — to be able to tell the differences in -and thus the reliability of — reports, inferences and judgments.

We can learn, with care, how to report — to others, but most importantly, to ourselves – a reasonable description of reality. We can learn, with careful practice, how to draw valid inferences and discard others. Having learned this, we can — perhaps — learn that many of our conclusions are actually judgments based on our own prejudices and expectations, rather than on the facts. Judgments are always constructed of whatever is inside our own heads. They extend beyond facts. They may fit the facts as we believe we know them — or fit what we want to believe — but they are not descriptions of reality.

If we apply what we have learned here to the concepts of writing an interesting newspaper article, or discussion of scientific findings, or the intentions of politicians making speeches, or folks talking about subjective matters such as religion, we can understand at least a little about why there are so many differing opinions, ideas and outright misconceptions about reality in general.

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