Assertions, Facts, Opinions, and Fallacies

Communication is a weird beast, an act we rarely consider.  We speak, someone else listens, they respond – it’s a cycle in which we pass on and receive ideas, play with them for a second or so, and then either dismiss them, or let them become part of ourselves.  The way this is done is vast and complex, shaped by everything from intent to cultural mores.

For my own purposes here at the Hedonist, I would love to take this into account in some manner. When I write something, anything, it typically comes from four different perspectives:

  1. Fact: Something that has been proven to be true. For example – Sugar can cause tooth decay, or the first law of thermodynamics.  Facts are tricky beasts and sometimes what we believe to be one may be found out to be overly broad. For example – Sugar, alone,  doesn’t cause tooth decay, but sugar plus saliva does leads to plaque. Plaque and the bacteria Streptococcus mutans creates a lactic acid which eats through calcium phosphate.  The fact mentioned above should read “Sugar, under the right conditions, can cause tooth decay”, but we’re lazy communicators, we often cut out important aspects of the facts. This act of communication can lead to item 4 below.
  2. Assertion: Something we believe/claim to be true based off of experience. That experience can be first hand experience, or reading a trusted sources assertion and believing it based off of their authority. Assertions are as often wrong as they are right, and rare is the person who makes an assertion which can be proven to be a fact 100% of the time.  Before the scientific method was developed and refined, most facts were nothing more than assertions: “The Earth is at the center of the universe”, or “The body is out of balance if it has too much blood.”
  3. Opinion: Something I believe to be true based off of values. For example – “Bushmills makes one of the best whiskeys out there”; or, “Corporations are evil” are both opinions. While others may agree with them, they are not fact, due to the subjective nature of determining what is good or bad. This is the area where morals and ethics comes into play.
  4. Fallacy: Item four is something I’ve hoped to avoid on this site, but recognize that after eight years of writing, something improper may have come through the cracks. Examples include many items mentioned above – “Sugar causes tooth decay”, “the earth is the center of the universe”, or “Bushmill’s makes the best whiskey” are both fallacies caused by either misunderstanding a fact, experience, or values.

My job as a communicator is to avoid Fallacies, and be clear about whether a topic I speak about is either a Fact, Assertion, or Opinion. If I claim something is a fact, I should be able to point to an item that demonstrates its validity. When I make an assertion, I should be able to recount my experience, or point to the authority that documented their own experience.

But most important to me is understanding and communicating items that are opinions. This means understanding and communicating my value system, whether it’s talking about food politics, or the qualities that make for a good whiskey.  As a communicator, if I ever passed off opinion as fact, then I have failed my own set of values.

Harsh? I suppose.  But failures to me are an opportunity for improvement, not a reason to punish myself (although I do a fair bit of that behind the scenes). More important to me is lettinng you know where I am coming from in my writings, and how in communicating with you, either through posts, e-mails, tweets, or any other social media activities, I do try to understand where my claims fit on the spectrum above.

 

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