Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Defining Terms

We are a verbal people, using words in our interactions with others. We use those words in conveying information. We also use them in arguing or disagreeing with the words of others. But what seems to me to be seen across a whole lot of these verbal interactions is that those debating or arguing don't seem to recognize a basic fact: there is a difference between a fact and an opinion.

A comment thread on another blog that I was involved in revolved around just this difference between fact and opinion. The first place to start is with a definition of terms: what is a fact and what is an opinion?

Fact: something that actually exists; reality; a truth verifiable from experience or observation; a thing whose actual occurrence or existence is to be determined by the evidence.

In short, a fact is something that can be proven to be true or false through a derived method based in experience or observation, based on evidence. Centuries ago many people believed it was a fact that the world was flat. Any/all methods available at that time seemed to prove the truth of the statement. In later centuries methods for proving the veracity of the statement showed that the fact was false--the earth was round.

Opinion: a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal; judgment or belief not founded on certainty or proof; a point open to question; a statement of personal belief; an assertion that may not be able to be proven as true or false.

An example of an opinion statement? Boy X is cuter than boy Y. Or perhaps broccoli tastes better than radicchio. Or even "Yossi is a better politician than Avraham is." These are a matter of taste, and taste is personal, not provable. The words "I like," "I feel," "I believe," "I think" signal that an opinion is coming, although they are not always verbalized when giving an opinion. Some people specifically leave out these words when making a statement to give the impression that the statement is a fact, not an opinion. Nonetheless, if such a statement cannot be subjected to an organized and accepted methodology for proving, they are opinions, not facts.

Now, there is a grey area when it comes to facts and opinions. Some of those who give their opinion on something use facts to back up that opinion. In this type of case the opinion is a conclusion come to based on facts. So, does such an opinion have validity to be considered as a fact? Yes and no.

Here's one example: You walk into your house and go into the kitchen. There is a pool of orange juice on your counter. You know for a fact that orange juice bottles cannot remove themselves from the refrigerator and pour themselves out on the counter. You know for a fact that only human beings can remove those bottles and pour. You come to the conclusion that someone in your house spilled the juice. Now, here are the facts you know right now. There was only one person who was supposed to be in your house while you were away--your son. Given what you know, you make the statement "My son spilled the orange juice."Without any further investigation you are making an informed opinion statement. But is this statement truly a fact? Further investigation might bring to light that your son had company in the house, so that any of the people in the house could have spilled the juice.

There is also the matter of who is making those informed opinion statements.When a doctor gives his/her opinion as to what might be ailing us, we tend to give weight to such statements. The doctor is experienced in the medical field and has specialized knowledge not available to most others. We assume that his/her opinion is of more validity than say the opinion of your mailman about what is ailing you. In such cases we tend to believe the opinions of such a person as if they were indeed facts. HOWEVER, such informed opinions are not always 100% correct. Testing, such as lab tests, might bring back the result that something else other than what the doctor said is wrong with you. Or those tests might be inconclusive, so we need to go further in seeing what is wrong.

To bring all this back to argumentation, conversations that take place in the "real" world and the virtual world are often argumentative in nature. Those arguments sometimes bog down or get downright nasty. The cause for this in most cases is that what is being argued about is not a matter of fact but a question of opinion--and opinions can't be wrong or right. "Enlightened" discussion requires us to recognize that while we might not like someone's opinion--and they might not like ours--we are entitled to have our own opinions without being labeled as wrong, pig-headed or evil.


Abba's Rantings said...

"there is a difference between a fact and an opinion."

of course. glad we agree. the difference is that what i say is fact and what everyone else says is opinion.

(hope you enjoyed your purim)

JS said...


Very funny.


Argumentation in general is a waste of time unless both parties are willing to hear each other out and genuinely consider what the other party has to say. More often than not it's just each party asserting opinion as fact and stating that anyone that cannot see the obvious veracity of his/her opinion is a nincompoop. Personally, I'm far too busy to engage in such wastes of time. It's a real shame too, because I enjoy a good discourse and exchange of ideas. However, whether its obstinacy or ignorance or both, I find it increasingly difficult to have intelligent conversations on contentious issues.

Also, I'd note that ancient peoples knew the world was round from at least the time of the Greeks. This was discovered in two ways: 1) Looking far off to the horizon in the direction of the ocean, one can see the curvature of the Earth; and, more directly, 2) During the phases of the moon, and especially during a lunar eclipse, when the Earth casts its shadow on the moon, one can see the Earth is not only curved, but a spheroid based on the fact that different portions of the moon face the Earth during its cycle.

In short, it's a common myth that people at Columbus's time thought he'd sail over the edge of the Earth.

ProfK said...

Err JS, I didn't limit the flat earth "fact" to the time of Columbus--lots of centuries before 1492 in which there were people who believed the earth was flat, and believed it as fact, and lots of centuries before the Greeks as well.

Just as an interesting aside, I was always confused as to why we should have a posuk that says "al arboh kanfos ha'aretz," which still exists today in the English saying "the four corners of the earth." Spheres don't have corners. Yes, someone once explained that what was being referred to was the four directions of the winds, but no matter how you want to taitch it, "kanfos" is corners, not directions, for which there is another word.

Miami Al said...


When you draw a map, it has corners.

The four corners of the earth are the edges of the known world.

That used to be smaller.

JS said...

It's not really clear that the word "kanaf" means corner even though that's how it's usually translated. In almost every instance that the word is used, it means a wing (the wings of birds or of angels of the wings of the wind).

The only other places variations of the word are used differently (to the best of my knowledge) are in connection to tzizit where we are instructed to put tzitzit on "kanfei bigdeihem" (bamidbar 15:38) and "al arba kanfot k'sutcha" (devarim 22:12) and in connection to the Earth (Yehezkel 7:2, Yishayahu 11:12 and Iyov 37:3). It seems from the way it's used, the word is meant to imply an "end" and not really a corner - i.e., the ends of the garment or the ends of the Earth. Interestingly, in both usages it sometimes includes "four" as a qualifier and sometimes does not.

I have no idea what the connection is between a "wing" and the "end."

There are lots of other words for corner used throughout Tanach it doesn't seem that kanaf is another usage.

ProfK said...

Thanks for the information on kanaf. But it still leaves me with a puzzlement. If kanaf is an end, and the posuk says arbah kanfos, then what is really meant? There are no ends on a circle or on a globe. The earth does not have an end--certainly not four of them--given the definition of end.

JS said...

It's just an expression, I wouldn't give it too much thought - though, you wouldn't hear me complain if you said the author of certain passages in Tanach didn't have a complete view of the solar system, for example the author in Yehoshua seems to think the Sun moves around the Earth, for example.

Why have North, South, East, and West? Why four directions? Why four winds? We still use these expressions even though we know they're not literal. Whether they were originally intended to be literal or not, I have no idea. Even ancient people envisioned the world as a disc, not a square, so even under that antiquated notion "four corners" makes no sense. More likely four is just a good number since it seems natural (for whatever reason) to speak, when referring to directions, of going forward, backwards, left, and right.