I’m going to give you ten statements. Your job is to identify which five are factual (definitively provable or disprovable based on objective evidence) and which five are opinion (not definitively provable or disprovable based on objective evidence):
- Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy.
- President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
- Immigrants illegally in the U.S. have some rights under the Constitution.
- Abortion should be legal in most cases.
- Health care costs per person in the U.S. are the highest in the developed world.
- Democracy is the greatest form of government.
- ISIS lost a significant portion of its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017.
- Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget.
- Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.
- Immigrants in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country today.
The questions come from a survey of 5,035 adults by the Pew Research Center (caution: not the greatest pollster according to Nate Silver, who gives them a B-) in February and March 2018. The goal was to see how well different constituencies distinguish between fact and opinion in the news.
The result: overall, a majority of Americans can correctly identify only three of each (fact and opinion), which isn’t much better than random guessing. They tend to mistake the opinions they agree with for facts, and the facts they disagree with for opinions. For instance, 89% of Democrats correctly labeled as fact the statement “President Barack Obama was born in the United States,” but only 63% of Republicans did. But before any Democrats feel superior, consider that only 63% correctly labeled as opinion “Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is essential for the health of the U.S. economy,” but 83% of Republicans did.
That said, an argument can be made that the inability to distinguish fact from fiction is in good part a consequence of the right-wing media bubble. Respondents with little to no trust in national news organizations — typically consumers of right-wing media — successfully identified all five factual statements only 18% of the time, whereas those with high trust in national news organizations got all five right 39% of the time (which is still depressingly poor).
The bubble works both ways. In another part of the study, Pew showed respondents eight statements, three of which were factual. The statements were attributed to either the New York Times, Fox News, or USA Today (the last as a middle-of-the-road choice). The attribution had little overall impact, except in one regard: Republicans were better at identifying factual statements attributed to Fox News, and Democrats were worse at identifying factual statements attributed to Fox News.
Here are the answers to the ten questions:
How did you do? Better than the typical American, I hope. Don’t wanna brag, but I got them all right. I’m pretty sure that’s due to my near-daily exposure to lawyers for more than 20 years. They did a great job of drilling into my thick head the difference between fact and speculation.