Are you sure? The difference between fact and opinion

fact vs opinion

Think back to some of the most heated arguments you have had or witnessed. What was being discussed?  Politics and religion are often at the foundation of some of the most virulent arguments I have seen. How often during these arguments does anyone acknowledge the difference between fact and opinion? The reality is, we are so deeply entrenched in our personal beliefs, that we often refuse to acknowledge that politics and religion are based on personal choice and opinion.  We act as if our fundamental beliefs were indisputable facts.

Disagreements about facts are simple to resolve, because facts are indisputable.  You can only argue that a square has 5 sides until you have a square in front of you and can count that the number of sides. Disagreements of opinion often can not be resolved as there is always some interpretation involved that can not be proven or disproven. You can argue indefinitely about opinions (and we often do).

I have my opinions. They are often strong ones too! And I used to feel very attached to sharing them and trying to convince others that my opinions were right. Whether I was talking about immigration in France or international politics during the Gulf War when the US decided to attack Iran to annihilate their mass destruction weapons, I was passionate and certain of my stance.  This caused me great pain and unhappiness when loved ones had violently different viewpoints.

I finally learned to put a stop to my vehemence when I was discussing opinions. Or when I was purely speculating. As a result, I have become a lot quieter  but also less apt to feel so hurt by other people’s opinions. Can you tell the difference between a fact, an opinion and a speculation? How often do you pay attention to which of the three you are talking about? Let’s look at the differences.

A fact is provable.  It is.

An opinion is colored by our personal experience, knowledge and context.  I think it is.

A speculation can be neither proved or disproved with current information in hand. It is something that might be, now or in the future.

So, a fact is verifiable. It is based on an observation (a square has 4 sides) or research and statistics (fictitious example: xyz study showed that 8 people out of 10 prefer orange juice over grapefruit juice). It is however possible to misrepresent a fact, by extrapolating, taking it out of context or exaggerating. For example, “everyone loves orange juice more than grapefruit juice” is an exaggeration, because 2 people out of 10 actually preferred grapefruit juice in the xyz study.  Saying that 80% of all people prefer orange juice is an extrapolation – the study was with a limited group of people and not the entire population.

An opinion is subjective. It is based on a personal view or an assumption. It may be based on facts, but if so, it includes an interpretation of them. For example (based on the xyz study) grapefruit juice tastes bad. There is no proof that people thought grapefruit juice tastes bad – they simply preferred orange juice. Opinions are based on how we think or feel and can be different person to person.

Speculation is nothing more than guessing. When we do not have all the facts, or we are looking at potential outcomes, we can only speculate. There may be facts that we can ultimately verify, but we do not have them at the given point in time. Speculation is a category I added because I realized that we not only spend a lot of time disputing opinions with one, but we spend a lot of time arguing as well about pure speculation.

So, the next time you find yourself getting hot under the collar during a conversation with someone, take a moment to check.  Are you treating opinions as facts? Is the other person? There’s nothing wrong with expressing an opinion. But, sometimes, it is just better to agree to disagree.