Facts, Opinions, and the Cultivation of Confusion within our Schools

The philosopher Justin P. McBrayer was visiting his son’s school for a second-grade open day when he noticed ‘a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.’

He wrote an article on the consequences of this catastrophe of the intellect, which I highly recommend. But I’m not sure he focusses sufficiently on the major crime.

He is troubled by the way that young students are taught to classify all moral statements as ‘opinions’. The problem is that if you examine the teaching literature in detail, ‘opinions’ are generally contrasted with ‘facts’. Students are asked to sort various statements into one or the other category. This implies that the categories are mutually exclusive. And so if all moral statements are ‘opinions’ it follows that no moral statements are ‘facts’. This suggests, insofar as any clear thesis can be dragged out of it, that there are no moral facts. Some moral philosophers would agree with this, of course, but it is problematic for schools to teach it as a matter of dogma.

I’m less troubled than he is by that, because I believe that the distinction invented by the school boards is too confused to support any conclusion at all, even that there are no moral facts. But this brings me to the real trouble. Children are being taught that what is confused is clear. Spawning a generation of moral relativists might be bad, but the last thing the world needs is more people who can’t tell the difference between sense and nonsense, between what is meaningful and what is not, between what is precise and what is vague.

Don’t feel superior about the fact that this is an example from the US. You can see the same confusions being propounded by the BBC, and I’d be very surprised if it hadn’t made it further afield than that.

Look again at those definitions of ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’. Note, first, that these terms are not being used in their everyday sense. A fact, in the everyday sense of the word, isn’t something that can be tested or proven, though a statement of fact can be. After all, we test the truth of a statement by examining the facts. If we then had to test the facts in the same fashion we would be onto a Sisyphean task. Fortunately we don’t have to prove that the facts correctly represent what is the case, because they are what is the case.

It appears, then, that we are dealing here with a technical term. ‘Fact’ is being used here in some special Pickwickian sense, if it is being used with any sense at all. It seems, at first, as though ‘fact’ in this Pickwickian sense is supposed to mean ‘a belief that is both verifiable and true’. But then it makes no sense to contrast a ‘fact’ with an ‘opinion’ – ‘what someone thinks, feels, or believes’ – since ‘fact’ would then be a species of ‘opinion’. Those ‘opinions’ that are true and verifiable would be ‘facts’. Asking children to sort statements expressing beliefs into the categories of ‘fact’ versus ‘opinion’ is like asking them to sort numbers out into those that are prime versus those that are odd. The task simply makes no sense, and the process will not teach children a rule; it will simply create a misleading impression of having learnt a rule.

Perhaps we’re meant to add to the definition of opinion: ‘…and is not a fact’. Then ‘opinion’ would mean ‘belief that is not true and verifiable‘. Does a belief have to meet both these criteria to count as a fact? But in the exercises given to students, they’re confronted with bare statements, such as ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won eleven Oscars (Academy Awards)’, and asked to classify them as facts or values. If a fact must be both verifiable and true, the student has no hope of classifying this statement without knowing whether it is true, but why should she know that? No wonder some teaching guides recommend that we ‘teach students that facts can be true or false’. Then verifiability can be the only distinguishing feature between facts and opinions; thus:

When students define a fact as any statement that can be proven to be true or false, they will concern themselves less with whether the statement is accurate and focus more on whether each statement can be proven.

Ignoring the implicit travesty on the word ‘proven’, this is less confusing in one way but more confusing in another; children will find it very difficult to understand the use of ‘fact’ in its normal sense if they’ve been taught to think that some facts are false! Also, it’s quite clear that the education system has not made up its mind on this – some teaching sources say that facts can be false; others say they must be true; all feed into the same standardised exams. Again, this can only serve to create confusion. On such an important matter those who have not made up their own minds should have no role in making up the minds of children.

But, most importantly, if the distinction the educators want the children to make is between those beliefs that can be verified and those that cannot, they fail to express this by defining a belief as ‘what someone thinks, feels, or believes’. It is as though I tried to teach you the difference between cats and dogs by telling you only that 1) a cat is a small meowing quadruped that chases mice and 2) a dog is an animal. Whatever I thus unleash onto the world, it will not be a person with the capacity to distinguish cats from dogs. Whatever the school system is unleashing is not a generation capable of distinguishing between verifiable statements of fact, on one hand, and non-verifiable statements of opinion on the other. It is unleashing a generation of people who are confused without knowing that they are confused, and I am not sure if there is anything more dangerous than that. As Ruskin said: ‘Willful error is limited by the will, but what limit is there to that of which we are unconscious?’

It gets much worse than this, however. The sense of ‘opinion’ that these educators seem to be after is the sense in which we say that something is mere opinion, as for instance when Smith, who has never researched the matter, says ‘Most immigrants come here just to bludge on the dole’, and I reply that this is only his opinion – it is just what he feels to be true, not what he knows to be true. (Why, by the way, doesn’t the distinction between opinion and knowledge find its way onto any of these worksheets? It’s much more useful than what is offered and has an admirable Platonic pedigree behind it.)

It would be useful, of course, for children to be taught the difference between statements that are made from an informed position, and could be backed up by the utterer with arguments and evidence, and those that are not. But this is simply not a distinction they are being trained to make. Again, they are simply presented point-blank with statements and asked to classify them as fact or opinion, with no contextual knowledge about who is making the statements, nor with what convictions, knowledge, or justification. Take Smith’s claim out of its context and examine it as a bare statement. It can quite clearly be verified – we just need to look up some statistics. So should it be classed with the ‘facts’? Perhaps not, if we believe that facts cannot be false. But then if Smith had expressed the opposite view from the same position of pig-ignorance would that alone make his opinion into a fact?

Or what about a guess about which horse will win the next race? We can verify it by waiting and seeing; if it turns out to be right does that mean that it was a ‘fact’ all along, rather than a completely uninformed ‘opinion’? One teaching guide avoids this problem by classifying *all* statements about the future as ‘opinions’, with the rationale that (this is almost verbatim) you can’t prove the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. I’m not sure what the author of that source would say to the argument that you can’t ‘prove’ the past either, since it isn’t here anymore. Both arguments seem to be on a level. Yes, we have records of the past, just as we have indicators of the future – the blip of the incoming hurricane on the radar screen. But any scepticism strong enough to reject the one is strong enough to reject the other. At least we can wait around for the future and examine it directly; that is more than we can say for the past. It does not help children to introduce them to a notion of ‘testing or proving’ and then provide no specification of what standards of evidence are in play; it helps even less that, again, the educators seem far from having made up their own minds about this.

It is pointless to interrogate the distinction any further, since it is quite clear that the people who frame it do not have a clear sense of what they mean. They have convinced themselves that they are making a meaningful distinction; in fact they are wandering blindly among various distinctions that don’t line up, sometimes using one, something using others, sometimes splitting the difference between them with Sphinxish ambiguity. And they are teaching children to do the same.

You might think my criticisms are mere pedantry. We’ll see. What can be thought can be thought clearly, and people who can’t think are pretty helpless. Extending ‘universities’ to cover schools as well, I end with Hobbes’ caveat:

I say not this, as disapproving the use of universities; but because I am to speak hereafter of their use in a Commonwealth, I must let you see on all occasions by the way what things would be amended in them; amongst which the frequency of insignificant speech is one.

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