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  Home > InfoWrite > The Writing Process > Facts, Opinions, and Assumptions
 

InfoTrac College Edition

Facts, Opinions, and Assumptions

In evaluating the ideas of others and developing your own, it is important to distinguish facts from opinions and assumptions.

FACTS are objective, observable, and verifiable:

  • The new Cadillac Seville weighs three thousand pounds.
  • Fred Allen drank three martinis at lunch.
  • Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

The car's dimensions are objective -- they can be measured or determined by examining manufacturer's specifications. A person's behavior can be observed by eyewitnesses. The freezing point of water can be verified by checking science books or performing a simple experiment. Facts, though accurate, may not provide sufficient evidence to support a thesis. Statistics, for instance, may be objective and accurate but are easy to misinterpret. The fact that reported cases of child abuse have increased does not prove that more children are being injured. It could indicate an increase in reporting or a change in the definition of "abuse."

OPINIONS express judgments that must be supported with evidence to be considered valid:

  • The new Cadillac Seville is stylish.
  • Fred Allen is an alcoholic.
  • Cold water is the most refreshing drink.

What makes a car "stylish"? What constitutes an alcoholic? Why is cold water more refreshing than other beverages? All these opinions require further support for readers to accept them as being valid. A writer might list details about a car's design to suggest that it follows most people's concept of what makes a vehicle attractive. More evidence of Fred Allen's drinking behavior would have to be presented, along with current medical research to suggest that he is an alcoholic. More information is needed to show why cool water refreshes a person better than iced tea, soda, or juice.

ASSUMPTIONS refer to things we believe to be true:

  • Large cars are safer.
  • Alcoholics can never return to social drinking.
  • People should drink 6 to 8 glasses of water everyday.

Assumptions may be basic truths which have been proven and reproven so that they are universally accepted without reservation. However, many assumptions are based on misinformation, obsolete data, or cultural traditions. Like opinions, assumptions should be tested. Students of critical thinking often refer to a famous 1936 poll which confidently reported that Alf Landon would beat Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election. The pollsters called people listed in scores of telephone directories. These random calls to men and women, blacks and whites, young and old, city dwellers and farmers, liberals and conservatives would, they believed, give them an accurate view of the electorate. But, their basic assumption was flawed. In the Depression, millions of people could not afford telephones. These poorer voters, who tended to support Roosevelt's New Deal, were never called. Despite the pollsters' hard work, their research failed because of a false assumption.

Bias

Bias refers to a prevailing attitude, set of values, or prejudices which influence the way people perceive new information. Bias may be irrational, based on rumor, misinformation, fear, or hatred:

A bunch of Muslims want to buy the old Methodist Church and turn it into a mosque! We should organize the neighborhood and protest to protect our children from terrorists and fanatics!

This kind of statement reveals prejudice and ignorance. Similar statements were once made about Catholics and Jews. Other forms of bias include sexism and homophobia.

Not all bias stems from racism or hatred. A bias may be based on experience, knowledge, and research. A respected judge may be biased against the testimony of jailhouse snitches. Investigative reporters may be biased against official press releases. Doctors may be biased against fad diets or herb remedies. No one is free of such biases.

The key point is to recognize that exceptions do exist. People should be aware of their biases and be willing to consider and investigate new ideas and not dismiss them simply because they seem unfamiliar or unconventional.

Groupthink

Groupthink is a term developed by Irving Janis to describe lapses in critical thinking that occur in group dynamics. Because companies, organizations, and research teams tend to be headed by like-minded people, it is easy for groups to make poor decisions. Members may be afraid to contradict their leader, question statements made by friends, or appear negative. As a result, groups fail to engage in critical thinking:

  • Groups fail to consider alternatives. Focused on preconceived ideas, they avoid discussing other possibilities -- or mention them briefly, noting superficial defects in order to dismiss them.
  • Groups fail to make contingency or fall-back plans. Because they don't want to entertain thoughts of failure, they do not outline a course of action to take if their plan does not achieve its planned goals.
  • Desiring to be positive, members of groups stifle criticism. Not wishing to advance negative ideas, they will keep silent -- often waiting for someone else to take action.
  • Groups overestimate benefits and ignore or underestimate costs.
  • Groups may have a sense of superiority or invulnerability. Believing themselves to be brilliant or morally right, members will demonize or stereotype opponents, dismissing their points of view.
  • Groups may stifle, punish, or isolate dissenters in the name of unity, assuring that opposing ideas will not get a fair hearing.

Groups can overcome the problem of groupthink by recognizing the need for constructive criticism and encouraging members to voice opposing opinions. This can be done by having the group seriously entertain opposing viewpoints:

  • The discussion leader, after outlining the benefits of his or her plan, may ask the group to volunteer objections.
  • Groups may ask a dissenter to join or have a member play the role of devil's advocate to advance opposing ideas.
  • Groups should test ideas, products, and services before large scale implementation.

When you work in groups or engage in collaborative writing, make sure you avoid the problem of groupthink. Guard against a collective avoidance of critical thinking.


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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.