Facts vs. Opinions. I was recently on a Zoom call with a group of friends and I found myself enthusiastically participating in a heated discussion of politics that had its share of both.
We live in Alberta, Canada where political discussions are especially…ahem…”lively” right now, but I would wager that whether you’re reading this from somewhere else in Canada, or from the US, or from the UK or frankly from anywhere else in the world, you can relate.
Facts vs. Opinions
I was beginning to feel that sense of frustration. You know the kind we’re all familiar with when talking to a less-than-bright person who lacks the intellect to know that you’re right and they’re wrong.
It occurred to me that I might realize a higher level of learning if I took myself out of the conversation altogether and sat on the sidelines as an observer. This is a little easier to do in our current era of Zoom calls in place of real human interaction.
I felt like a spectator at a tennis match as my head turned from side to side following the volley of back and forth arguments.
How are opinions formed?
The conversation soon became more and more heated, the language more and more colourful, and the arguments more and more personal. What was most fascinating was that each “point” in the debate was presented as an absolute, irrefutable statement of “fact.”
Here’s why this type of discussion is so interesting. Each of us had access to exactly the same information, in this case a widely-reported decision made by our government to implement some policy or other. Yet no two people seemed able to reach any level of agreement.
How is this possible that we can all have the same facts and arrive at vastly different conclusions? That we can be confronted with exactly the same evidence, and make vastly different decisions?
The answer is simple and yet difficult for many of us to wrap our heads around. This is what happens:
- We are presented with information.
- We disseminate that information by running it through a series of filters we have developed from all of our life’s experiences.
- We reach a conclusion which we call an opinion or a belief.
Opinions Are Entrenched
As it is our own opinion/belief, we consider it to be true. As it is the truth, it must be a fact and, therefore, correct. Once facts are filtered by our brain and influenced by our own experiences and circumstances, they come out on the other end as our opinions. Very different, but to us, equally as irrefutable.
The problem arises when people are no longer able to see the difference between facts that exist, and opinions they have drawn from these facts.
Researchers have created experiments around how people cling to and defend opinions. This research indicates that we all would rather deny or disregard information that contradicts what we already believe, than do the mental work to alter our beliefs.
This, scientists explain, is why it’s so hard to convince people otherwise if they believe vaccines are inherently harmful, even though there is a mountain of reputable evidence that they are safe, effective and important. Those who hold opposing opinions would rather deny the facts than change their worldview, and the more facts they’re presented with, the more they dig in.
A wise teacher once told me that outside of physiology and biochemistry, the only things that separate you from me is the beliefs we each have about what is right or wrong, moral or immoral, possible or impossible, and whether dogs make better companions than cats. (Which they obviously do, that’s just a fact, and if you believe otherwise, you’re wrong and so are your facts, #DogsAreBetter)
Finding Common Ground
Ironically, having deeply-held personal beliefs is what we all have in common. So if we truly want to stop the most egregious examples of incorrect facts when they arise, the personal nature of each of our opinions is probably the best way to start.
No one responds well to being told their opinions are dumb, they are dumb and they don’t know the facts. (Just ask the cat lovers reading this column.)
Rather than engaging in a perhaps entertaining but utterly futile back-and-forth like my friends’ political discussion, try inquiring about how these facts became opinions in the first place.
Try this to change someone’s opinion
We go to war over our beliefs, volunteer our time over our beliefs, choose our careers over our beliefs, enter and end relationships, buy cars, buy houses, make business decisions, go to school, all because of what we believe.
The next time you’re confronted with one you find particularly egregious, remember that the sum of someone’s experiences shape facts into their beliefs. Consider asking them about this process: how they came to hold the opinions the hold. Share how your experiences brought you to your own beliefs.
A belief is no more than the meaning or interpretation we choose to place on the events in our lives, or on real or imagined information, that we become aware of. By sharing this process with those around us, we might never change minds, but our conversations will undoubtedly be less frustrating, and certainly more interesting.