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Intermediate Reading Course. Section 4: Reading Critically

Distinguishing Fact from Opinion and Speculation

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We tend to think that, to support claims, providing facts better than providing opinions or speculations. However, facts, opinions, and speculations play a role in supporting an argument.

The key is to distinguish one from the other and to evaluate how well reasoned and supported they are.


Video Activity

Watch Distinguishing fact from opinion and take good study notes.

You can study the page and watch the video in any order.

Facts, Opinions, and Speculations

Presenting Information as a Fact

Facts are objective and verifiable. For example, writers could present this information as a fact:

The Empire State Building 1,454 feet (443.2 meters) tall from its base to the tip of its antenna.

The information is objective, that is, the writer is not passing personal judgment on the information.

The information is also verifiable by measuring the height of the building or simply by consulting a credible and reputable source of information.


Presenting Information as Opinions

Opinions are subjective and unverifiable. They are based on personal judgment, preference, or individual feelings, values, or experiences; therefore, they cannot be “proved” or verified.

For example, writers could present the following information as their opinion:

The bold and sophisticated architectural style of the Empire State Building makes it one of the most iconic skyscrapers in the world.

The information is subjective, that is, this is the writer’s personal judgment of the topic.

You cannot verify an opinion. You may agree with someone else’s opinion, but others may not, so you cannot “prove” an opinion.


Presenting Information as Speculations

  • A speculation is a claim that is uncertain, unverified, and often based on incomplete or ambiguous evidence. Speculations can change as new information becomes available. For example, writers may present the following as a speculation:

    Given the vast the number of stars in the Universe, it is conceivable that life exists other than on Earth, even intelligent life.

    The information is presented as a speculation. It is impossible to prove whether or not life exists on other planets. The evidence (the number of starts in the Universe) makes it conceivable, but it is impossible to “prove” the information either way.


    Important Note about False Claims

    Note that in this lesson we refer to “presenting information as a fact.” When writers present information as a fact, it does not mean it is accurate or true. The next lesson on facts and false claims elaborates on this topic further.

    Opinions Are a Matter of Degree

    As mentioned earlier, presenting opinions are part of supporting claims. Keep in mind, however, opinions can be based on more or less evidence. This way, you can have strong opinions and weak opinions. Strong opinions are easier to agree with than weak opinions because they are based on other pieces of evidence, usually facts.

    Example of a Weak Opinion

    In the paragraph below, ”Albert Einstein was one of the most intelligent people that ever lived” is an opinion. It is a weak opinion based on the evidence that follows the statement.

    Albert Einstein was one of the most intelligent people that ever lived. You need a degree in physics to understand his theories. He also had many great new ideas in physics at the time.

    For example, a writer may state the following opinion,

    Example of a Strong Opinion

    “Albert Einstein was a very influential physicist” in the paragraph below is an opinion. Given the factual evidence presented in the rest of the paragraph, it is a strong, well founded opinion.

    Albert Einstein was a very influential physicist. He produced groundbreaking work in the field of theoretical physics, particularly the development of the theory of general relativity. His theories challenged many long-held scientific beliefs and led to many new discoveries. His work laid the foundation for the development of nuclear energy and technology.

    Mixed Ideas

    Facts, opinions, and speculations are often mixed in the same paragraph and even sentence. For example, each of the following sentences presents information as a fact followed by an opinion based on the fact or a speculation.

    Facts Followed by Opinions

    • John decided to drop out of college, which was a big mistake that may affect the rest of his life negatively.
    • Most of Professor Ecks’s students earned a C in his course. It must be a very difficult course.
    • A large explosion destroyed half of the building. It is a miracle no one was hurt.
    • Mary spends hundreds of dollars in new clothes every month. She should spend her money on more important things.

    Facts followed by Speculations

    • John decided to drop out of college. He must have had personal problems to do something so drastic.
    • Most of Professor Ecks’s students earned a C in his course. It is possible the course was too difficult or that students lacked basic knowledge.
    • The animated comedy film “Turning Red” lost a great deal of money. It appears perhaps parents thought the topic was too mature young audiences, or maybe people are tired of this type of stories.

    Up Next: Recognizing Facts and False Claims

    Go to the next lesson to learn about recognizing facts and false claims.