What does the average person consider a fact? And when is something an opinion or a belief?
Mitchell Rabinowitz, Ph.D., began pondering those questions while watching a televised political debate in 2004.
Professor and chairman of the psychological and educational services division in the Graduate School of Education, Rabinowitz found himself baffled by how often candidates used the phrases, “The fact is…” or “It is a fact that…”. He wondered how people were interpreting such statements.
“Being able to distinguish facts from opinions or beliefs is a curriculum item in schools,” Rabinowitz said. “It starts in elementary school in practically all of the subjects—they have a specific objective of teaching people to distinguish facts from beliefs.”
But do these lessons lead to a set definition of a fact?
Not really, as Rabinowitz found.
“The assumption within the curriculum is that a fact is a well-defined concept, but what my research shows is that a fact is a very fuzzy concept,” he said. “There is very little consensus among people as to what is a fact versus a belief, or what features define a fact.”
Rabinowitz conducted studies to determine how people gauged facts versus beliefs. He gave his subjects simple statements and asked them the following three questions:
• How much do you think this is true?
• What proportion of the population do you think would think it was true?
• Is it a fact or belief?
His initial hypothesis was that a fact was something a person thought was true and believed others also would think was true. A belief, on the other hand, could be anything—one might think a statement is true but acknowledge that someone else might think it false, or a person might think it false but expect that someone else may, in fact, think it true.
Rabinowitz came up with six rules for his subjects to use when rating statements as facts or beliefs:
• I think it’s true and other people think it’s true.
• I think it’s true and others may or may not think it’s true.
• I think it’s true; others won’t think it’s true.
• I don’t think it’s true and other people won’t think it’s true.
• I don’t think it’s true and others may or may not think it’s true.
• I don’t think it’s true and others will think it’s true.
“So if we gave general statements such as, ‘A dog is an animal,’ or ‘The colors of the American flag are red, white and blue,’ or ‘Sleeping with the window open is good for you,’ people were pretty good at distinguishing facts from beliefs, and they were pretty consistent in terms of what they consider to be a fact versus a belief,” Rabinowitz said. “A fact is this very narrow type of entity and that’s what we expected.”
But when Rabinowitz expanded his study to include statements about academic disciplines, such as psychology, biology and history, the results differed.
“For beliefs, people moved their ratings more to the ‘I believe and other people should believe it also.’ And even though people were saying something was a belief, they were more likely to think it was true compared to the baseline items,” he said.
Findings differed from discipline to discipline, and even within disciplines. For example, if the statements were about the psychology of memory, a consistent number of items pertaining to that subject area were categorized as facts.
“But when we looked at the psychology of relationships, even though we took the statements from the same textbooks [as psychology of memory], most of those statements were perceived as beliefs,” he said.
In the discipline of biology, specifically regarding the circulatory system, a consistent number of subjects tended to classify the statements as facts. On statements about the theory of evolution, however, subjects tended to rate the statements as beliefs.
Despite the variations in academic disciplines, Rabinowitz found that even though participants classified statements as beliefs, they were still likely to say they believed the statements to be true.
“With the general items, they were willing to say, ‘It’s a belief, but I don’t believe it.’ But with academic disciplines, they said, ‘It’s a belief, but I think it’s true.’ So once you put it in that type of context, they’re more likely to agree with it and expect other people to agree with it,” he said.
In this stage of the research, Rabinowitz found more breadth in what was considered a fact.
“Before, a fact was something you thought was true and you expected everyone else to think was true. In academic areas, a fact is something someone thinks is true, but others may or may not think is true,” he said. “This is due to people’s lack of knowledge about academics. They may think, ‘I know it’s a fact, but some people don’t know about this. Other people may not have this knowledge of the discipline, so even though I think it’s a fact, they might not agree with it.’”
Rabinowitz then tackled politics using statements taken from newspapers.
“Remember how statements about academic disciplines that were rated as beliefs sort of moved toward the ‘I think it’s true and I expect other people to think it’s true also?’” he said.
“Well, in politics it moved in the opposite direction. It was more, ‘This is a belief, but I don’t think it’s true, and I don’t think other people think it’s true.’”
Also with politics, the majority of statements were rated as beliefs, Rabinowitz said.
“There were not many ‘facts’ in politics,” he said. “But when people categorized a statement as a fact in politics, they used a different set of rules. Instead of saying, ‘A fact is something that I agree with,’ in politics, they indicated, ‘I know you say this is a fact, but I don’t agree with it.’” Yet they still classified the statement as a fact.
In other words, even when rating a statement as a fact, people were also very likely to add that they didn’t think the fact was true.
“We looked to see whether there was consensus as to which statements were facts and which were beliefs,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if the area was a belief-laden area or a fact-laden area. What we found across disciplines is that people do not agree as to which statements are which. So if one person chooses 50 percent of the statements to be facts and the other 50 percent to be beliefs or opinions, and another person also chooses 50 percent, the overlap as to which they chose is very small,” Rabinowitz said.
“That is, they are choosing different items to be facts and different items to be beliefs. Even though they are using the same rules to define them.”