Differentiating between opinions, experience, belief, logic and facts
In today’s world, we rely heavily on information in order to survive and make decisions. And yet, not all information is created equal. Sometimes it is factual, sometimes it is partially factual and sometimes it is completely distorted and bears no truth whatsoever. How are we, as regular people without access to a science lab that can prove or disprove anything, come to the right conclusions about what is true, what is fact, what is opinion, what is logical, and mostly what is not any of the above? This article aims to provide some insight on this topic and hopefully a strategy that anyone can use to discover for themselves what the truth is.
Why did I choose this tool? For a large portion of my life, I was living a lie. Yet it was a lie that I completely believed to be true, and one that affected every single aspect of my life. Every time I tried to use logic to understand what was going on, my logical reasoning was shut down by those who presumably knew better than I did and who also knew that my “logic” would lead me down a “bad path”. It was only much later in life that I broke free from these lies and I started to reexamine everything that I had always assumed to be true. And this is why today I am so adamant about not believing anything “just because”. I know that “authorities” can be dead wrong, and although I am open and eager to learn about everything I rely first and foremost on my own mind, intuition and logic to make the final decision for me. For this reason, I am very passionate about this topic and have given it a whole lot of thought over the years, the years in which I can confidently say that I have had a free mind.
How does this apply to being a trainer? As trainers, we are literally in the information business. Good trainers will always be seeking to share relevant knowledge with others, and also to acquire new knowledge for themselves. We also may facilitate debates or discussions where we have to sort out the opinions from the facts, and where we need to support participants in being objective about where they stand. This is a hard task and a big ask, because it means we are constantly deciding what is true and what is not, what information is important and what is irrelevant, and we are constantly taking action according to these decisions. This article endeavors to examine our thinking process about facts and opinions to better understand both of these and to ensure that our decisions about knowledge and truth are the best that they can be.
So how would you go about differentiating between opinions, personal experience, belief, logic and facts?
I could tell you to do your research, find out what is true, and put the rest in the category of opinion and belief. However, as of 2010, Google reported that there were 129,864,880 books written. Assuming you could read one per month it would take you about 11 million years to read them all, not to mention that a portion of the information in these books would be false, irrelevant and/or contradictory to each other, and the fact that there have been tons more books published since 2010 as well as scientific papers and articles. One source says that there is a new book published on Amazon every 5 minutes. So, understandably, you will not get around to reading it all.
The next suggestion could be, only believe something that has been proven by science. While that sounds like a straight forward solution, science and scientists are not necessarily always reliable sources of information. Scientific experiments can be biased based on corporate interests; they may also contradict each other. Also, a lot of important information that scientists uncover doesn’t get shared with the public because of the barriers there are to doing so. In addition to this, traditional science can only examine that which can be seen. There is a lot more to this existence than what we can see, which science has and will continue to have a hard time understanding and coming to conclusions about. Consider some intangible things like love, freedom, integrity and perhaps emotions in general. They have a tremendous impact on our lives, and yet how can science properly examine them, except perhaps the effects they have on our brains and bodies?
The next suggestion I could offer then is make sure all opinions are backed by facts before you embrace them. This is also nearly impossible, not to mention it would make you into quite a pedantic and calculating person. The reason why it is nearly impossible is that facts are acquired according to existing beliefs, based on the fact that we see what we focus on. To see this phenomenon in effect, take a look at this video:
In addition to this, there is no way to really verify a large amount of the information you receive on a day to day basis. You might not have access to or the time to study the research involved in coming to certain conclusions, and in other cases (for instance news reports) you don’t have access to the situation that is being discussed and can’t exactly verify the situation for yourself, or the magnitude of it. Chances are, you will only find the time to deeply search for information on issues that are extremely important to your health, wellbeing and/or success (or that of your loved ones). Everything else will probably be accepted or rejected by your brain without necessarily a well-founded reason why.
In the unlikely event that you could verify everything, the distinction between fact and opinion is a lot more complex than we often make it out to be.
A commonly accepted distinction between fact and opinion would be the following:
“Fact: statement of actuality or occurrence. A fact is based on direct evidence, actual experience, or observation.
Opinion: statement of belief or feeling. It shows one’s feelings about a subject. Solid opinions, while based on facts, are someone’s views on a subject and not facts themselves.
An example chart to distinguish a fact from an opinion could be with the facts in the left column and the opinions in the right column:
|(1a) There is beer in my refrigerator.||(1b) Wine tastes better than beer.|
|(2a) The earth revolves around the sun.||(2b) The earth was created by an omnipotent God.|
|(3a) Thousands were killed in Darfur.||(3b) Genocide is wrong.|
|(4a) The current US president is a Democrat.||(4b) A Democrat will win the presidency in 2016.|
The understanding would be that the difference between facts and opinions is that factual statements are uncontroversial. But this answer doesn’t seem right either, since it would make it audience-relative whether something is a fact: for example, “the earth revolves around the sun” would be a fact for modern Europeans but not for medieval ones; “God created the earth” would be a fact for believers but not for skeptics; “The earth is flat” would be a fact for Flat-Earthers but not for the rest of us. How useful would the fact/opinion distinction be if any statement could count as either one, depending on who hears it?”
You might be feeling frustrated by now that it seems like there is not a good way to distinguish between facts, opinions, logic, personal experience and beliefs. If you are, take heart. Just the fact that your mind is trying to understand this distinction shows that you are well on your way to developing your critical thinking and analytical skills.
And the answer is actually quite simple: there is a reason why facts, beliefs, opinions and logic all exist. None of these should be put on a hierarchy above the others because they are all important in the functioning of a sound mind and healthy decision-making abilities.
Simply saying “that is just your opinion” is rather demeaning, since you are implying that the person hasn’t thought it through and is just spouting something off for the sake of it. However, if you ask “how did you come to that conclusion” you give the person a chance to give their reasoning and to put all the factors together, including perhaps their personal experience, their beliefs, relevant facts and their own logical reasoning.
Perhaps more important than distinguishing between beliefs, facts, knowledge and opinion, is being able to determine consistency.
Some of the definitions of consistency in the Merriam Webster dictionary are:
1a: agreement or harmony of parts or features to one another or a whole: CORRESPONDENCE The furnishings and decorations in all the rooms reflect a consistency of style. specifically: the ability to be asserted together without contradiction
b: harmony of conduct or practice with profession followed her own advice with consistency
3a: firmness of constitution or character: PERSISTENCY… the rigid consistency with which he had adhered to its principles …— Nathaniel Hawthorne
I believe that facts, experience, opinions and beliefs should work together in a cohesive and consistent way. The truth is that not all currently accepted “facts” are true, and not all currently accepted “beliefs” or “opinions” are wrong or too subjective to be proven. Every currently proven fact started out as an opinion, belief, or hypothesis. And if we only trust currently proven facts and figures, our world and our level of knowledge will be seriously limited based only on what there has as of yet been the motivation, resources and funding to prove.
The other extreme is when someone creates an opinion or belief and completely chooses to ignore facts that are in opposition to that opinion or belief. This can certainly lead to living in a complete illusion and believing a lie, and I have personally seen what disastrous effects this can have.
As with everything else in life, balance is the key. Opinions, facts, beliefs, experiences, must all collaborate together to form a cohesive, true reality yet one that also has the potential for imagination, creativity and new realizations or connections that have not been made before.
This is where I believe that logic, as well as intuition, come into play. If you cannot find proof of whether or not something is true, you can use your own logic and intuition to think it through. Does it sound right? Does it feel right? Did you try it? What was the impact? What is the source that gave you this information? Are they committed to giving pure information, or do they have a stake in the matter? If so, do you need to find other sources to get the full picture?
Do not underestimate your own abilities to understand and decipher what is true and what isn’t. Don’t place other minds on a pedestal higher than your own. Learn from all of them, and yet trust in your own ability to come to the conclusion that will be the most relevant and helpful to you.
Was there ever something you always assumed was a fact, that you later found out was not factual at all?
Was there something you always assumed was untrue or merely someone’s opinion, which turned out to be true in the end?
How do you currently think about facts, knowledge, opinions and beliefs? How do you decide what is true and what isn’t?
Which aspects of this article were most relevant to you?
As a result of this article, is there anything that will change in your thinking process?
Has this article confirmed something you already knew or disproven something you always thought was true?
How can you incorporate this way of thinking into your everyday life, trainings and decisions?
How to apply it in everyday life:
Here is an example that has actually been implemented, showing how to put together facts, opinions, logic, beliefs, and experience in a cohesive way.
- You hear about something called the keto diet, where you supposedly lose weight through eating fatty foods.
- Your first thought is that this can’t possibly work, because you know (or you think you know) that eating fatty things makes you fat. There must be a reason why such a huge portion of foods in the supermarket are advertised as being “low in fat”.
- You put your prejudice aside for a moment, and you research the ins and outs of this diet. Has anyone gotten good results from it? How does it actually work in your body? What’s this “fat-burning” process your body goes through? Are there potential negative side effects?
- You add your existing knowledge to the table, for example you know that for the most part, our ancestors were leaner and healthier than we are today, and you link with what has changed: processed foods, high carb foods, sugar, etc. Pasta and cookies certainly didn’t exist back then!
- You think this might work, but you are still cautious about it. How will it affect your body? How will it affect your energy levels? Will you really be able to function normally with hardly any carbs? Will you go hungry?
- You decide to commit to it for a short period of time so that you can observe the impact. As a result of your research, you also know that you may experience bad feelings as part of the adaptation period and that it is not to be considered a negative side effect because it is normal and it will soon pass.
- After trying it for a few weeks, you start to feel good effects. You have lost weight, you feel lighter and more energetic, you can go longer without eating (without feeling hungry), and your hair and skin look better as well.
- After one month and experiencing numerous positive effects, you are ready to adopt the new belief that this lifestyle and way of eating is healthier than the one you previously had. You don’t know if you will always continue with it, but you decide that this is indeed a healthy alternative that you now have access to.
Congratulations! You have successfully completed the process of stringing together facts, opinions, beliefs, experience and logic together in a cohesive way. In this case, we used diet as an example, but the same could apply to pretty much anything including deciding on a new religion, profession, life strategy, relationship, belief about self or others, in other words: anything.