Sunday Sermon: 2017 and Facts

I wish you all a good year! Health and safety first and foremost, then all the other good things. I also wish you special strength and skill at one all-important task: telling fact from opinion.

factNational Public Radio used to have a “this I believe” section on the local WPSU* affiliate, where readers could write in a little essay on what they believe, and sometimes read them on the air. Since it’s “bible country” out here, there were occasional statements about belief in divine goodness or purpose, but generally people on the air kept their beliefs to important and tangible things: the smell of puppy, the beauty of the world, the importance of going on in spite of life’s reversal, and the desire for a beautiful death. I wrote a piece, which did not get selected, and it was this:

I believe that the most important duty we bear is to try to tell fact from opinion. Humans are machines for generating opinions: I like pizza, I think it’s acceptable to play music loudly at 3:00am because I live in an isolated house far from others, politicians lie too much, and the user interface of Microsoft Office has gotten much too complicated over the years. Where we err is when we mistake our opinions for facts, and act upon them as facts. What is a fact? A fact is a belief supported by a preponderance of evidence: in other words it’s an opinion also – the difference is that evidence means we’ve got some means of concluding that our belief is reflected in reality. For example, it may be my opinion that it’s OK to play music loudly at 3:00am because nobody can hear it – but if an angry neighbor shows up at my door to complain, I have new evidence I must add to my opinion – evidence that contradicts my belief that nobody will be bothered. Now, armed with my new evidence, I must either adjust my opinion, or create a new opinion that includes new evidence, namely that my neighbor appears to be overly sensitive, so, whatever.

The dividing line between fact and opinion is evidence and analysis of that evidence. And I believe that one of the most important things we humans can do for ourselves and others is to be as clear as possible about that dividing line. Everything in our interactions between eachother depends on that separation, since everything about how we interact with others is based on our opinions about them and what they are experiencing. I can tell my angry neighbor, “Oh! I am sorry! I didn’t think you’d be able to hear my music. I’ll turn it down immediately.” I can recognize that it’s not a fact that ham pizza with mushrooms and olives is the best pizza, because I understand that pizza toppings are a matter of opinion. This, I believe: we each have a huge number of opinions, but we all share the same facts.

This topic is especially on my mind as we enter 2017, because we’ve collectively experienced a traumatic conflation of fact and opinion. In the news, there is hand-wringing about electoral manipulation, false news, fact-checking, and whether so-and-so has an accurate belief about such-and-such. Like everyone else, I’m full of opinions, and – because of roles I’ve placed myself in in society – I’m granted a certain freedom to state my opinions. We all are, it’s just that some of us hold a microphone and shout our opinions loudly, while others mutter them sotto voce. My 2017 project will be to try harder to delineate what is my opinion from what I believe to be fact, whenever, and however it’s necessary. It seems clear to me that we’ve always had to be our own “fact checker”s for everything. In 2017, more than ever.

Happy New Year.


(* Penn State, State College PA)

A fact can also be a belief that is supported definitionally, but I didn’t want to divert from my main point. If I define “addition” in a certain way, then “one plus one equals two” is a fact.