This morning I read a piece from back in 2004 by a university professor, the sort of university professor who is asked to give a speech at an Ivy League school, no less. This professor is part of the cream of the crop of academics, it seems. In it, the professor points out a variety of persistent and quite inconsiderate behaviors on the part of many students, rightly asking them to behave as if they value their education and be considerate of their professors. I thought the list very sensible, with the exception of #9.
“9. Don’t misrepresent facts as opinions and opinions as facts.
Figure out the difference. Here’s an example of how not to represent a fact, via CNN:
Considering that Clinton’s departure will leave only 16 women in the Senate out of 100 senators, many feminists believe women are underrepresented on Capitol Hill.
Wait. Feminists “believe”? Given that women are 51% of the population, 16 out of 100 means that women are underrepresented on Capitol Hill. This is a social fact, yeah? Now, you can agree or disagree with feminists that this is a problem, but don’t suggest, as CNN does, that the fact itself is an opinion.
This is a common mistake, and it’s frustrating for both instructors and students to get past. Life will be much easier if you know the difference.”
What boggled my mind about #9 isn’t that the professor believes that women are underrepresented on Capitol Hill and should have a greater influence there. I too think that women ought to have just as much chance as men at screwing up our country through the time-honored tradition of politicking.
What surprised me about this example is that CNN got something very right. CNN provided the fact, which is that only 16 out of 100 U.S. Senators are women. Then they cited the opinion, which is that women are underrepresented, which is to say that there is a ratio of men to women that ought to be the case, and that this ideal or obligatory ratio is not being achieved in the U.S. Senate.
I learned in my science and philosophy courses that facts and value judgments or moral judgments are not the same thing, and even that they were mutually exclusive. And claiming that women are underrepresented on Capitol Hill is quite obviously a value judgment. It assumes that there is a high value in having a ratio of male to female Senators which reflects the overall population’s distribution of men and women. To be fair, the professor does concede that the moral question of whether this arrangement is a problem or not exists in the realm of opinion rather than a fact, thereby avoiding the contentious issue of whether or not there are moral facts.
To understand why value judgments are not facts, let’s look at a less politically charged example. Let’s suppose that I go to the store and shop for a new towel. In the aisle in which the shelves are full of towels, I notice that 20% of the towels are made of polyester and that the rest are not made of polyester. That is, in this hypothetical scenario, an observable fact. Let’s also suppose that I claim, “The polyester towels are underrepresented here.” Such a claim would be an opinion, specifically an opinion which rests upon a value judgement about the ideal level of representation for polyester towels on the store shelves. There might be good arguments for valuing an equal number of polyester towels on the shelves, but that value judgment is by no stretch of the imagination a fact, regardless of how reasoned a judgment it may be.
The professor who is insisting that we not confuse opinions with facts uses an example in which she mistakes an opinion for a fact. Is it any wonder that the students taught by a professor who can’t parse opinions and facts correctly also cannot parse opinions and facts correctly? How can we expect students to understand the difference between an opinion and a fact when those teaching them that difference are treating their opinions as facts?
When professors present their opinions as facts, the students learn from the example though they may not learning from the course. Students are far more quick to learn from what a professor does than from what a professor says. If this is a widespread problem, then I think we’ve discovered part of why university students often treat their political views as factual and get so upset when there is disagreement.
In my opinion, our students need to encounter opinions in the classroom, and the more opinions the better. And yet they need more than just the opinions; they need to be exposed to the facts, understand that their opinions are not necessarily coherent with the facts, and see that their professors are muddling through the process of formulating their opinions in light of the facts just like they are.