Which, apparently, most American adults can’t. Just 26 percent went five for five on factual statements while 35 percent went five for five on opinion statements. If that’s not depressing enough, Pew notes that just 24 percent went four for five on factual statements. Fully half of all Americans couldn’t do better than three for five on a rudimentary gut check about discerning assertions from opinions.
Explaining why is more complicated than blithely insisting that people are stupid, although “people are stupid” is surely in the mix here. There were notable gaps (especially in gauging factual statements) within groups according to certain criteria — those with “high political awareness” versus those with low, those who are “digitally savvy” versus those who aren’t, those who trust the media more versus those who trust it less. All of that may boil down to the idea that people who read more, especially those who read the news, are apt to have a more finely honed sense of fact versus opinion since they’re constantly encountering both — sometimes with one deliberately passed off as the other for political gain.
But personal biases play a part too. Go figure that the more a statement happened to jibe with someone’s political prejudices, the more likely they were to label it fact rather than opinion. Everyone wants to believe they have The Truth on their side. Here’s the list of 10 statements with the partisan numbers on each:
Sourcing also mattered. Democrats and Republicans showed no difference in discerning a statement as fact when presented by the New York Times or USA Today. But when it was presented by Fox News, the share of Republicans willing to describe it as fact ticked up a few points while the share of Democrats willing to describe it as such ticked down. Relatedly:
A lazy take on those numbers would be that distrust of the mainstream media is linked to lower education, which in turn leaves a person less able to tell fact from opinion. A smarter take, I think, is that distrust of the mainstream media is linked to more voracious consumption of partisan news media, whose whole business is questioning the facts and assumptions advanced by the mainstream media. For instance, one of the factual statements offered by Pew is “President Barack Obama was born in the United States.” If you’re an Infowars fan who’s read a hundred articles questioning O’s birth certificate, you might choke on the idea of characterizing that as “fact” even though Pew specifically told people before quizzing them that they shouldn’t base their determination of whether a statement was factual on whether they thought it was accurate.
Or, if you’re reading any sort of right-wing blog, you might pause when confronted with the statement “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.” After gorging for years on information supporting that belief, you might have a hard time classifying it as an opinion. Which it is. A very smart opinion, one with loads and loads of corroborating evidence, but a bit too sweeping and dismissive to be treated as absolute fact. The point remains, though: As with any other type of diet, one’s news diet will affect how one copes with real-world challenges. Just look at how Democrats did in the first chart above when asked whether a $15 minimum wage is “essential.” By 2020, 75 percent of them will be calling that fact.
The only one of the 10 statements that’s genuinely tricky, I think, is the one about illegals having rights under the Constitution. That has nothing to do with illegals per se; it’s just that debates over law, particularly constitutional law, frequently are proxies for political opinion. Right-wingers would tell you it’s a fact that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, and they’d be correct. Left-wingers would tell you that’s a matter of opinion, albeit one that’s momentarily the law of the land thanks to the Heller opinion. (If Pew really wanted to mess with people, they’d have used “Abortion is a right under the Constitution” instead.) It is in fact true under Supreme Court jurisprudence that illegals enjoy *some* rights under the Constitution; even if it weren’t, the statement would still qualify as fact under Pew’s rules since it’s being offered as an assertion of legal reality. Online readers are so used to seeing opinions couched as “constitutional facts,” though, that I’d give anyone who whiffed on that one a bit of a pass. A 10-year-old would probably choke on it too. Although maybe not an 11-year-old.