Legal & EthicsPractice MattersWorkplace Management

You’re not necessarily entitled to your opinion…


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.”

Oh, really?

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 registered nurse faan



Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN

Executive Editor, Professional Outreach

American Nurse Journal


Stokes P. No, you’re not entitled to your opinion. The Conversation. October 4, 2012.


  • Hazel Dennison
    October 12, 2017 7:54 am

    I read this article -and yes, I agree – I’ve seen many nurses that come out with something that appears on the surface to be a fact and then state ‘”Well…that’s my opinion” -like that bears weight and makes it important. Humility and taking all other thoughts and ideas into account and understanding others perceptions is a much better and deeper method of developing your response – everyone is entitled to an “opinion” – thinking before you express your opinion -and understanding the results and the impact of what you say on others -even if it is an “opinion” is a much better method of communicating your ideas. Don’t overuse a word to get your point across as fact -when it is not.

  • Jerry N. Wesner
    July 3, 2017 4:39 pm

    I see it somewhat differently. I believe that, unless it contradicts facts, you are entitled to your own opinion. I may agree, I may disagree, I may think your opinion is idiotic — see, I’m entitled to mine also!
    But you are not entitled to express that opinion under any and all circumstances. If you are at work, you might hold an opinion contrary to that of your boss, but stating it in your boss’s presence can be hazardous to your job. Stating it to your boss’s boss or a reporter can be even more dangerous.
    I feel much freer to express even an unpopular opinion than I did 20 years ago; I’m retired and nobody can fire me.
    And I won’t even go into expressing an opinion in a way that upsets somebody. “Your sister’s dead; unplug the machine” can be an opinion, but expressing it in that way is almost designed to hurt somebody. You can do it, but you shouldn’t.

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