Understanding the difference between fact and opinion
Originally published May 17, 2017; updated August 6, 2021
Seriously, facts aren’t opinions…and all opinions are not equal. In today’s world of alternate facts and zealous individualism, it may help to clarify a few things. For example, my sister Louise, a newly minted director of nursing, called me outraged that a new graduate contradicted the chief of cardiology in front of a patient. When Louise counseled her about this, the young, inexperienced staff member said, “I’m entitled to my opinion.”
This may seem a bit provocative, but quite frankly, she’s not entitled to her opinion. She’s only entitled to learn how to construct and defend an argument, which is an entirely different matter. “I’m entitled to my opinion” all too often becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like,” and, by extension, “My opinion is at least as good as yours (regardless of education, experience, and even facts).” Thus, in one single phrase, we justify a false equivalence between experts and non- experts, and even between truth and lies. This is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.
Moreover, the person saying, “I’m entitled to my opinion” may be talking about facts, which aren’t opinions at all. Dating back centuries, we’ve distinguished between opinion and certain knowledge (facts). As Stokes notes, unlike 1+1=2 or there are no square circles, an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. Opinion ranges from tastes or preferences through views about politics, or it can refer to views grounded in technical expertise, such as medical diagnosis.
An opinion is not about fact. There’s no way you can argue with me if I say that, in my opinion, tofu tastes awful. You might like tofu and perhaps even point out that tofu takes on the taste of the spices or other food that surrounds it, but my preference against it is literally beyond questioning.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines truth as “that which is in accordance with fact or reality.” Thus, you may have a duty to argue with me if I were to say that immunizations cause autism. Immunologists present overwhelming scientific evidence to demonstrate that immunizations don’t cause autism, and the health of millions may depend on policy decisions made about immunization.
You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion about a preference. It would be silly to insist that I’m wrong to think tofu tastes terrible. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second (false equivalence between expert and nonexpert opinions) and even the third sort (equating opinions with facts) to be as unarguable as questions of taste. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with immunologists and have their views respected, implying that both parties have an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of them has the relevant expertise.
So, what does it mean to be entitled to an opinion? Stokes writes that if it just means no one can stop people from thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but trivial. No one can stop you from saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven. No one can stop you from telling a lie, especially if you don’t care about truth.
But if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to be taken seriously,” then it’s patently false. No one is entitled to be taken seriously; you must earn that privilege with facts, experience, and education.
Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN
Executive Editor, Professional Outreach
American Nurse Journal