Americans struggle to tell the difference between fact and opinion: Study

Story at a glance

  • A recent study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign looked at how well Americans can differentiate between fact and opinion.

  • As part of the study, researchers asked more than 2,000 adults to correctly identify if 12 statements were fact or opinion.

  • Fewer than 5 percent of adults correctly identified all 12 statements.

Knowing the difference between fact and opinion seems simple, but respondents in a survey published earlier this month were largely unable to correctly identify either.

Two researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently published a study on how well American adults can tell the difference between a factual statement and a statement of opinion.

The study appeared in the Harvard Kennedy School of Misinformation Review earlier this month.

As part of the study, the pair sent 12 statements to 2,498 adults via a YouGov poll in 2019 and asked them to correctly identify whether the statements were fact or opinion.

All the statements were related to current events, and many touched on hot-button topics like abortion, immigration, healthcare costs and the role of diversity in America.

The duo found that on average, survey respondents correctly identified about 7 out the 12 statements and that just under 5 percent of the entire survey pool identified all 12 statements correctly.

The researchers stressed that a score of roughly 7 out of 12 is worse than it seems.

“A person randomly would, on average, answer 6 items correctly,” Jeffery Mondak, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and co-author of the study, told The Hill.

“Thus, the average respondent did not improve a great deal over chance.”

Americans’ inability to confidently differentiate between statements of fact and opinion have “grave implications” for the future of political discourse and misinformation, the researchers said.

“The capacity to differentiate between a statement of opinion and a statement of fact is vital for citizens to manage the flood of political information they receive on any given day,” Mondak said in a statement.

“How can you have productive discourse about issues if you’re not only disagreeing on a basic set of facts, but you’re also disagreeing on the more fundamental nature of what a fact itself is?”

Mondak and co-author Matthew Mettler categorized reasons for incorrectly identifying the statements into two categories — unbiased error and partisan error.

Unbiased error, or a wrong answer due to things like random guessing, decreased the more education or knowledge of current events a survey respondent had, according to the study.

But partisan bias, or wrong answers stemming from choosing a response that aligns with their political affiliation, did not.

And partisan bias played a strong role in the root cause of error, the researchers said.

“It’s not merely the case that there were a lot of incorrect responses, but that many of the errors were not random,” Mondak said. “They were systematic errors because many respondents formed their answers to fit their partisan narrative.”

One of the 12 statements used in the study — “President Barack Obama was born in the U.S.” — is a statement of fact.

But Mondak explained that some could incorrectly redefine the statement as opinion depending on their “partisan lens.”

“Our analyses show that the problem of misinformation includes an underappreciated dimension in that people do not just disagree on the facts, they also disagree on the more fundamental matter of what facts are,” Mondak added.

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