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Facts, Truths, Beliefs, Opinions, and "Alternative Facts"

"Truths" and opinions change. Facts don't, because they're based on reality.

Henry was regarded as opinionated. “I just saw the best movie ever,” he announced to some associates. Chris said, “Do you mean you've just seen a movie that you enjoyed?” “No,” said Henry, “I know the difference between a good and a bad motion picture.” Gordon chimed in, “Most of the time,” he said, “it seems to be a matter of opinion.” “Wrong! ” Henry exclaimed, “it is a matter of fact.”

Do you know anyone who speaks with great certainty about everything? Someone who makes statements such as, “Wrong!” or “That’s ridiculous!” or “You're completely incorrect!” when someone disagrees with him or her?

Such people are often insufferable and are seldom genuinely liked. Their philosophy is “I think I know, therefore I absolutely know!” Or they declare, “My opinion is not just an opinion; it's a fact.”

Being right is very important to such people. Even when they are dead wrong, they don't let actual facts get in the way of their opinions. They fail to realize that there is a big difference between facts on the one hand, and truth, opinion, belief, taste, and preference on the other. Moreover, just because we dislike or disapprove of something does not make it wrong.

A fact can be tested or checked: Lincoln was born in 1809; that cereal contains 21 grams of sugar; the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second (in a vacuum). A belief, opinion, taste, or preference cannot: corn tastes better than peas; long hair is more attractive than short hair; biking is more fun than swimming, etc.

What's more, truths and even cherished beliefs change while actual facts tend to remain the same. For example, 1,000 years ago, when people stated the earth was flat, only a few thousand years old, and the center of the universe, they were speaking the "truth." Now we know our planet is spherical, 4.5 billion years old, and orbits a rather typical star which is but one of many billions in a galaxy which is itself but one of many billions in an expanding universe of unimaginable size. This is the "truth" of the current age and, more importantly, facts that are not likely to change much in the future.

Of course, there will inevitably be people whose "truth" does not square with objective facts. They will claim the earth is indeed a mere 6,500 years old and "The Fintstones" was basically an animated documentary! Similarly, an "alternative fact" is just a feeble effort to promote what might be one's "truth" as an actual fact. In actuality, however, a fact is not a matter of opinion; it is an incontrovertible, verifiable reality that is grounded in objective evidence. It is arrived at precisely because the "alternatives" have been disproven.

Still, every person has a right to express opinions without being ridiculed or shouted down. It’s important to avoid attacking or labeling those who disagree with us.

Nevertheless, when not dealing with clear-cut facts, an emotionally intelligent person will say, “It seems to me…" "It’s my impression…" "I think…" "I believe…" or "In my opinion…" rather than make emphatic declarations with absolute certainty.

Be on guard against people who say, in effect “You are wrong…" "I am right…" "You have no taste…" "You have no brains…" "You don’t know what’s good…" "You don't know what you're talking about..."

If someone says to you, “You have no taste” you can politely but assertively correct the person by saying, “You mean your taste differs from my taste.” Hence, you are entitled to say, “This may be a great painting but I don’t particularly like it!” But if you say “This painting is a disaster!” you’d better be a recognized art expert who is able to explain exactly why, in your opinion, that piece of art falls short.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright 2017 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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