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The blog-like periodic musings of Anne Copeland, Director of The Interchange Institute. Most of these comments are related to intercultural issues, but don't be surprised to see comments on technology, travel, food and other subjects of interest. Return to our home page.

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July 2018

In today's news environment, we have to ask, all the time, "Is what I am reading a fact or an opinion? If it's presented as a fact, is it accurate? And if it's an opinion, do I agree with it?"

Imagine having to do that in a new country, without understanding any of the history or context known by the locals.

It turns out locals are not very good at making these distinctions, either. And that's a huge problem.

The Pew Research Center just completed a study of 5,035 adults living in the US. The researchers read participants a series of statements and asked them to say whether each was an "opinion" or was "factual." They first explained that a "factual" statement is one that can be proven true or false by data; thus, a "factual" statement might be wrong. For example, "The sun is 2,000 miles from Earth" is a factual statement, not an opinion – it's just a wrong one. And "Saturn is the prettiest planet" is an opinion – you may agree or disagree with it, as you like.

A bit confusing, I admit – but it's a skill readers of today's news (and crossers of cultures) have to have. What's opinion, and what's being presented as fact? We can – and should – fact-check factual statements and should recognize opinions for what they are.

Take the Pew test yourself. Or see the test items below.

Note, in this Pew study, all the "factual" statements were, in fact, true.

Overall, participants in the study were not very good at knowing what is opinion and what is something that could be fact-checked. For example, only 54% Democrats and 63% Republicans recognized that this statement was a factual statement that could be proved or disproved by data: "Spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the US federal budget." (It's actually true, but you don't have to know that to correctly label this NOT an opinion.) It's as though people have trouble hearing a fact they disagree with, instead concluding it must be an opinion, rather than a fake fact.

Notice that both Republicans and Democrats were more likely to label a statement "factual" if it was something they (or at least their party) tended to agree with.

This is a big, big problem for a democracy. (Is that a fact or an opinion?!!)


P.S. All of our work at The Interchange Institute focuses on giving people the facts they need to make their way in a new culture, and to help them understand why others have the opinions they have. Making this fact-opinion distinction is crucial to crossing cultures with sensitivity, compassion and competence. Join us at one of our fall training of trainers Crossing Cultures with Competence workshops, to learn more about how you can help others do this, too. Or check out our publications, described in the sidebars here.



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