Argument versus opinion

A student asked me the other day during a discussion of modal logic whether I found it hard to listen to the chatter of normal people. Another person–often the victim of my constant and misplaced vigilance–has raised the same question. While many might not know the proper logical mode of the claim “God exists” (necessarily? contingently?) they should know the basic facts of rationally justified beliefs. Deborah Howell, like many of her colleagues at the *Washington Post*, is not like most people. She writes:

>Editorials and news stories have different purposes. News stories are to inform; editorials are to influence.

This is right so far as it goes. The problem, as it has been pointed out by many (start here should you wish to purse the issue to its bloggly ends) is the falsley dichotomous facts versus opinion claim. Opinions, especially those of a newspaper of worldwide circulation and influence, such as the *Post*, ought to be grounded in well-established fact. Within the limits of reasonable dispute, what the facts show, which inferences can be legitimately drawn, is another matter. But we must stress that at the basis of that argument are the facts. Should those arguments, such as those of the Post editorial referred to above, fail to take the obvious facts into account, then they are little more than lies.

To the student who asked whether it was difficult to deal with the unrigorous chatter of normal people I said: it’s hard to read the newspaper.

2 thoughts on “Argument versus opinion”

  1. Except that facts don’t always sway people. Perhaps this is the problem. Philosophers can get away with denying facts, but they give numerous reasons for this position. The reasons themselves also have to be coherent and reasonable. Editorialists give few if any reasons, and we are tempted to say that they are unpersuasive because our personal criteria for belief are based on fact and inference. Many others are persuaded not by fact and inference, but by emotion, blind acceptance, appeal to the people…fallacies–that work. Fallacies are dishonest, or at the very least misguided and reasoned poorly. Thus, the editorials are full of lies.

  2. I think Jem hit on part of the problem — facts don’t sway. Not as well as cleverly fallacious logic and emotional appeals. Ask (most) any Washington policy strategist or speech writer.

    The big bias in the media today is the bias towards entertainment, and this goes doubly for editorials. That’s what sells papers and drives ratings. Find a columnist that’s on your “team,” and revel in the comaraderie three times a week when she shows you just how right you are. Even when you’re wrong.

    That said, the fact remains that the Post, the Times, etc, should be held to a significantly higher standard.

    Who’s going to do it?

  3. IF what Mr Dolan says is correct “facts don’t sway. Not as well as cleverly fallacious logic and emotional appeals”. Maybe it is time to introduce critical thinking in high schools.

    If people could identify spin from truth it would soon render editorial opinion and government Bull powerless.

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