That certainly sounds like the distinction from grade school.
The Atlantic article’s author, Alexis Madrigal, accepts the dichotomy uncritically and argues (torturously) that people’s inability to separate fact from opinion should be blamed on the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, the rise of social media, and the existence of Breitbart, Fox News and MSNBC. A quick Google search finds that Madrigal is not alone in accepting Pew’s fact/opinion dichotomy uncritically; so does Justin Doom at ABC News, Joe Concha at The Hill, Mairead McCardle at National Review Online, John Walsh at Business Insider, Angela Moon at Reuters, and even Rush Limbaugh.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as a mere semantic disagreement between philosophers and logicians on one hand and the Pew folks, media, and K–12 educators on the other. But if you look at Pew’s “test answers” for 10 statements it deems unambiguous facts or opinions, you find that Pew has trouble following its own definitions.
For instance, it classifies the following three statements as “opinions”:
- Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country today.
- Government is always wasteful and inefficient.
- Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy.
In public policy, analyses are regularly published arguing that these statements are true or false, and thus facts or falsehoods. These analyses make extensive use of “objective evidence” and “traditional standards of objectivity” such as empirical data and statistical analysis—the stuff Pew claims are the hallmarks of “facts.”
For instance, the notion that illegal immigrants are “a very big problem” rests on ideas about crime and public safety, political and social dynamics, labor economics, and government fiscal effects. Those topics can be evaluated with empirical data, historical examples, economic modeling, and basic mathematics—that is, “traditional standards of objectivity.” My Cato colleagues Alex Nowrasteh and David Bier muster mountains of “objective evidence” on the effects of immigration and provide a careful, reasoned framework for evaluating them, concluding that illegal immigrants are in fact not a very big problem (or any problem at all, on net) for the country today.
Ah‐ha, the Pew folks would likely respond, but analysts at the immigrant‐wary Center for Immigration Studies likewise muster evidence and assemble a rational framework, and they conclude that illegal immigrants are in fact a very big problem for the country today. It can’t be the case that both Cato and CIS are right—so, Pew reasons, there must be no objective fact of this matter, just opinion. But just because there is disagreement doesn’t mean there’s no fact, just as disagreements between physicists don’t mean there’s no facts in physics. Rather, these disagreements mean the facts are in dispute.
Similar arguments can be made about government wastefulness and inefficiency (two concepts that are well‐defined in economics) and whether a minimum‐wage increase is “essential” (or even beneficial) to the nation. In fact, all five statements that Pew identifies as opinions and not facts clearly are claims to fact. They are all subject to objective analysis (though, again, that analysis may not settle the issue—at least not today) and are either facts or falsehoods as well as opinions.
What about the statements Pew labels as “facts”? All five do accurately describe the world, but at least one of them is not a “fact” according to Pew’s definition of the term. Consider this statement:
- ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017.
ISIS certainly lost most of its territory over the last few years. But does the amount lost in 2017 count as “significant”? That depends on what is meant by “significant.” In social science, statistical significance usually (but not always) means there is less than a 5 percent chance the correlation of two variables is the result of random chance. By extension, does that mean ISIS must lose at least 95 percent of its land over the course of 2017 in order for the loss to be “significant”? Or does “significance” in this context depend on “people’s beliefs and values … and therefore lack traditional standards of objectivity”? If we follow Pew’s definition, then this statement is an “opinion,” not a “fact.”
Pew’s dichotomy of fact and opinion is problematic—so problematic that Pew violates its own definitions of those two terms even when it tries to use them carefully. Rather than casting aspersions upon the people who ostensibly misidentify “opinions” as “facts” and vice‐versa, Pew should appreciate that those people take value judgments seriously enough to believe they accurately reflect the world we live in—that is, that they are facts.
That leads to the deeper problem underlying the Pew exercise. If value judgments are purely matters of opinion and wholly removed from fact, then most if not all policy disagreements—and most if not all human disagreements—cannot be settled rationally. “Slavery should not be legal in most cases” is not a fact according to Pew, but an opinion that cannot be true or false. Likewise “The Holocaust was immoral,” “Sexual harassment is a big problem in the United States,” and “The immigrant caravan heading toward the United States is a big problem for the country.”
In fairness to Pew, I’m sure this exercise is motivated by a noble idea: to get people to think critically about their value‐laden beliefs about the world, which in turn should encourage civility to others with different points of view. But by making fact and opinion mutually exclusive, Pew goes too far, removing the very reason—trying to understand the world—for critical thinking and civility. If opinions can’t be facts, then societal disagreements on these matters can only be settled through power‐battles between opposing tribes, with the strongest tribe dictating to everyone else. The Pew Research Center’s nobly intentioned project becomes the perfect clarion for the Age of Trump.
This is not to say that policy disagreements don’t entail differing personal tastes, preferences, and risk tolerances. De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum, after all. That’s why I’m a libertarian who believes in robust individual liberties and limited government—institutions that help people with different preferences maximize their freedom to follow those preferences while living peaceably with others in a well‐functioning society. The same is true when the facts are unknown or in dispute. But differing tastes don’t mean that we should deem matters of judgment, values, and beliefs—and all matters subject to disagreement—to be fact‐free zones. Doing that would undermine the very importance of these disagreements.