How Do You Argue about Beliefs, Facts, and Opinions?
April 09, 2018
It’s a trick question! Students often have a hard time understanding that they can’t really argue about beliefs, and can only use facts to support an argument. As for opinions, they can only argue about valid opinions.
Why, and what is the difference between the terms?
Beliefs are things that we accept as true even though they can’t be proven and even though many others may disagree. Beliefs tend to be deeply rooted, such as in matters of religious faith or national loyalties. Unfortunately, many beliefs are also prejudices. If people believe, for example, that certain trees or mountains are holy, that’s their right. However, if they believe that another race of people are inferior and want to teach their children that, that is not their right; the measure of beliefs is whether they offer the basic respect you want others to offer you.
Facts are things that you can prove are true, or which most people accept as being true. While some may believe that rainbows are magical bridges for unicorns, we can prove experimentally that they are formed by light passing through raindrops. You cannot argue with a fact unless you undertake new observations and experiments that disprove the old one. It was once an accepted “fact” that the disease malaria was spread by bad air; that’s what the Italian words mal aria mean. But scientific observations and experiments have given us a new fact—mosquitos spread malaria.
Opinions express how you feel about something and they don’t depend on facts. You can argue that you love apples and someone else can argue that they hate apples: you are both entitled to your opinions as long as they don’t hurt others.
Valid opinions are your opinions supported by facts. You might say that apples are good for you, and that statement falls between fact (because most people would agree) and opinion (because you might just be talking about your preferences). But if you back up your opinion with one or more facts, such as “Apples are good for you because they are free of fat, sodium, and cholesterol while providing fibre.” then you are sharing a valid opinion.
“Students often have a hard time understanding that they can’t really argue about beliefs, and can only use facts to support an argument.”
So how should students argue when someone brings up beliefs, facts, opinions, and valid opinions?
Valid belief: I believe beautiful beards are given to men by magical unicorns.
- “You’re welcome to your beliefs but they are not the basis of an argument.” or,
- “As there’s no evidence to support your claim, there’s no point in discussing it.”
Invalid belief: I believe everyone who wears a beard is evil.
- “If your beliefs are meant to hurt others, I’m not interested in discussing them.”
Fact: In 1698, Russia’s Peter the Great placed a tax on men’s beards.
- “I accept that as a fact; we don't have to discuss it.” or,
- “That may be a fact, but can you share more information about it?”
Opinion: I’m more handsome because I have a beard.
- “I agree/disagree but there’s no evidence to support it either way.” or,
- “Do you have any facts to support your opinion?”
Valid opinion: Having a beard can take away from your success. After all, 98 percent of the Forbes 100 List of the world’s richest men are clean-shaven.
- “I accept your opinion.” or,
- “You may be right, but there might be other reasons for this percentage; can you share more information about who’s on the list?”
This last response is a good start to any discussion: looking for additional information to support one or another side of an argument. For example, many Asian men have trouble growing beards so the billionaires among them might unduly influence the percentage.
Teaching students to recognize various beliefs, facts, opinions is more than a first step in empowering them to argue effectively; it’s an essential critical thinking skill.
For more on arguments, check out LEAP 3 Listening and Speaking, Chapter 6, pages 123-124, Focus on Critical Thinking, Identifying Logical Fallacies.
Dr. Ken Beatty, is a TESOL Professor at Anaheim University. He has worked in schools and universities in Canada, Asia and the Middle East and lectured widely on language teaching and learning from the primary through university levels. He is author of 130+ textbooks, including six books in LEAP series. He has also led more than 300 teacher-training sessions around the world.