Facts And Opinions In Critical Thinking

An article published in The Times on Dec. 13 begins:

On Saturday, a festive, besotted mob of 20- and 30-somethings, decked out in various measures of Santa Claus dress and undress, will descend on the bars of lower New York City and rain down Christmas cheer like spoiled eggnog.

This obnoxious event is SantaCon. For those living in peaceful oblivion, SantaCon is an annual tradition in which revelers dress up as Kriss Kringle (or, at least, put on a Santa hat) and participate en masse in an often literal bar crawl, cramming 12 nights of Christmas boozing into a single afternoon.

Where in the newspaper do you think this article was published? Is it A) a news report that belongs on the front page? B) a review in the Arts section? Or C) an Op-Ed piece in the Opinion section?

If you chose C, you’re right. In “Bring Drunken Santas Under Control,” Jason O. Gilbert argues that SantaCon “contributes absolutely zero value — cultural, artistic, aesthetic, diversionary, culinary or political — to its host neighborhood.” To do this, he relates facts like the history and reach of the event to make his case, but much of the writing is a colorful, impassioned and often funny plea for New Yorkers to ban, or reign in, this tradition.

Read the full piece. Which lines in it are facts? Which are opinions? How can you tell the difference?


Your Task

As a class, choose another piece from the Opinion section, whether one of those listed below, or something else that fits class curriculum:

As you read, underline the facts in the article and circle the opinion statements. After you complete this, compare with your neighbor. Did you underline the same facts? Did you circle the same opinions? If there are differences, why do you think that is? Which ones were tricky? What does the ratio of fact to opinion in this article tell you?

Before You Do This Task, You Might…

1. Better understand the difference between fact and opinion:

  • A fact is considered something proven to be true.
  • An opinion is a personal belief that is not founded on proof or certainty.

2. Examine the intent behind a news story vs. an opinion piece:

  • According to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at The Times, reporters writing a factual news story strive to be impartial — meaning they keep their opinions out of the story.
  • A person writing an essay, review or opinion article is trying to persuade readers to accept their views based on their professional or personal experiences. The writer often uses first or second person (I, we, our, ours, you, yours) to make it clear the article is based on a personal point of view.

3. Take this quiz, which uses sentences from recent Times articles.

4. Know that many articles in The Times contain both facts and opinions. Although articles that are chiefly reporting news contain mostly facts, the reporter might quote stakeholders who give their opinions on the topic. And some Times features, like News Analyses, might be labeled “interpretive journalism.” You can read more about features like this, and a trend some see as a troubling blurring of fact and opinion, in this 2010 column by a former public editor at The Times. After you read it, view a News Analysis piece like the recent “Considering the Humanity of Nonhumans” to see what you think.


Above and Beyond

Read a News Report and an Opinion Piece on the Same Topic: For example, here’s a news article about SantaCon, which you can read alongside the Opinion article that opened this post. Or, here is a news report on a New York City hearing on e-cigarettes, which you might read alongside the Op-Ed “The Case for Tolerating E-Cigarettes.” What are the differences? What is the fact/opinion ratio in the news piece? You can conduct this same experiment with any topic that interests you: contrast the reporting on the front page on a big news event like with a piece in the Opinion pages that takes on the same topic.

Fact vs. Opinion Scavenger Hunt: Where in a typical edition of The Times are you more likely to find reporting that relies chiefly on facts? In what sections are you more likely to find pieces that privilege opinion? Why? Go through one day’s edition of The Times and create a quiz like the one above for your classmates using sentences from different sections.

Arguments and Counterarguments: Choosing another Op-Ed article, practice making a counterargument. Using this activity sheet (PDF), select one opinion and one related fact stated in the Op-Ed article. Then, speculate about what you might say in opposition and write a rebuttal.

Standards

This resource may be used to address the academic standards listed below.

Common Core E.L.A. Anchor Standards
Reading
  • 1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

  • 4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

  • 6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

  • 8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.


Academic Skills

Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.

Distinguishing Between Fact, Opinion, Belief, and Prejudice

When forming personal convictions, we often interpret factual evidence through the filter of our values, feelings, tastes, and past experiences. Hence, most statements we make in speaking and writing are assertions of fact, opinion, belief, or prejudice. The usefulness and acceptability of an assertion can be improved or diminished by the nature of the assertion, depending on which of the following categories it falls into:

A fact is verifiable. We can determine whether it is true by researching the evidence. This may involve numbers, dates, testimony, etc. (Ex.: "World War II ended in 1945.") The truth of the fact is beyond argument if one can assume that measuring devices or records or memories are correct. Facts provide crucial support for the assertion of an argument. However, facts by themselves are worthless unless we put them in context, draw conclusions, and, thus, give them meaning.

An opinion is a judgment based on facts, an honest attempt to draw a reasonable conclusion from factual evidence. (For example, we know that millions of people go without proper medical care, and so you form the opinion that the country should institute national health insurance even though it would cost billions of dollars.) An opinion is potentially changeable--depending on how the evidence is interpreted. By themselves, opinions have little power to convince. You must always let your reader know what your evidence is and how it led you to arrive at your opinion.

Unlike an opinion, a belief is a conviction based on cultural or personal faith, morality, or values. Statements such as "Capital punishment is legalized murder" are often called "opinions" because they express viewpoints, but they are not based on facts or other evidence. They cannot be disproved or even contested in a rational or logical manner. Since beliefs are inarguable, they cannot serve as the thesis of a formal argument. (Emotional appeals can, of course, be useful if you happen to know that your audience shares those beliefs.)

Another kind of assertion that has no place in serious argumentation is prejudice, a half-baked opinion based on insufficient or unexamined evidence. (Ex.: "Women are bad drivers.") Unlike a belief, a prejudice is testable: it can be contested and disproved on the basis of facts. We often form prejudices or accept them from others--family, friends, the media, etc.--without questioning their meaning or testing their truth. At best, prejudices are careless oversimplifications. At worst, they reflect a narrow-minded view of the world. Most of all, they are not likely to win the confidence or agreement of your readers.

(Adapted from: Fowler, H. Ramsey. The Little, Brown Handbook. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.)

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