American Senator Daniel Moynihan’s famous line, “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts” was reworked by Governor Mitt Romney during last weeks Presidential debate as, “you can have you own office and your own plane, but you can’t have your own facts”. Whilst politicians are hardly in a position to lecture the rest of us about the use of facts, it raises an important point: opinions are NOT facts, but increasingly they seem to be presented as such.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise; we live in an information society, but our ability to process that information probably hasn’t grown much from the time when the Library of Alexandria contained virtually the entire sum of human knowledge within it’s 700,000 books. So we reach for shortcuts or we accept the opinion of people who seem reliable or who are deemed to be experts. In some ways, we’ve become so used to doing this, that such opinions become facts (or factoids) themselves, facts of the “it must be right because so and so wouldn’t lie” variety.
In comparison to the number of blogs and sites offering an opinion on everything from politics to fashion, the number of fact checking sites is tiny. Services such as Truth Squad for politics or computational engines such as Wolfram Alpha to check the raw numbers are in a small minority, but one thing’s for sure on the internet, if the demand is there, the sites will come. So we need to educate ourselves and our children on the importance of differentiating fact from opinion and demand access to the facts or the ability to check on the facts that we’re given to us in everyday life. It’s time we all became a new breed of information connoisseurs.