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Is That Just Your Opinion?

by Hans Bluedorn

A lot of you have probably heard about CBS’s recent special “A Dark Side to Home Schooling.” The main point of the segment was how “there is a subculture of homeschoolers who use home schooling as a way to abuse their kids without anybody finding out.

They used the examples of several abusive families who were supposedly homeschooling. This Logic Loop will give you some tools to help you analyze a report like this.

FACT, INFERENCE, and OPINION

Knowing the difference between 1.) a fact, 2.) an inference, and 3.) an opinion is the first step in analyzing something for reliability.

First, I will explain the difference between a fact, an inference, and an opinion; then we will see how to recognize each in everyday life.

FACT

Prosecuting Attorney: “Mr. Jones, what did you see on the night in question?”
Mr. Jones: “Well, it was like this. I was sitting on my porch, and saw that man right there sneak up to Mr. Applebottom’s house, break the window, and crawl inside. He had a gun, so I called the cops.”

We can call Mr. Jones’ testimony a statement of fact. Mr Jones is describing things that he saw happen – things which could be verified by somebody else. A fact is anything which can be directly observed or checked for accuracy.

INFERENCE

Prosecuting Attorney: “Sheriff, what happened when you got there?”
Sheriff: “When I got in the house, I saw Mr. Applebottom on the floor, shot dead, and that man right there with a smoking gun. I didn’t see anybody else in the house, so I figured that man must have been the killer. So, I arrested him.”

This sheriff is taking some verifiable facts, and drawing a logical inference from those facts. An inference is a logical conclusion made from facts. An inference is less reliable than a fact for two reasons. First, the inference may not follow from the facts. (For example, it wouldn’t be logical for the sheriff to conclude that the man with the gun must be a revived Elvis.) Second, the person making the inference may not have all the evidence to make a good inference (there may have been somebody else he didn’t see, hiding in the house, and the man standing there had just picked up the gun after the other person fled).

OPINION

Prosecuting Attorney: “Can you tell us...”
Miss. Pink: “Oh, yes I can. I looked out the window and saw the sheriff bringing that man right there out of poor Mr. Applebottom’s house. I didn’t like the look of the man, and I said to my sister: ‘That man just murdered somebody.”

Miss. Pink is giving an opinion. She is taking facts, and adding to them other information that cannot be directly observed or checked for accuracy -her knee-jerk opinion of the man.

When a person will not state the facts they used to come to a conclusion, we can usually guess that they are giving an opinion. Because an opinion is often based on feelings, it is even less reliable than a fact or an inference.

In articles written in the manner of “The Dark Side to Home Schooling,” it is often difficult to determine whether something is a fact, an inference, or just an opinion of the author or the editors. Authors commonly interweave fact, inference, and opinion into their writing without telling you which is which. That is why it is very important to learn how to sort these things out for ourselves.

Below is part of the written version of the report. Underneath the first eight segments I have put what I think each statement is: fact, inference, or opinion. Your job will be to do the same for the rest of the segments. Below each segment write what you think it is – with any necessary explanation – and send it to me by November 15th.

I have two “Fallacy Detective Scholarships” (which amounts to a free copy of the book) to give away. I will award these to two particularly good and logical responses. I recommend this Logic Loop exercise for ages 13-18.

A Dark Side To Home Schooling

1. (CBS) The school bus never stopped at the secluded trailer on Hickory Crossroads in rural North Carolina because for five years Nissa and Kent Warren home schooled their children.

[I at first thought this was fact, but all we know was the Warrens kept their kids at home and claimed they were home schooling. So, I would say this is an inference from evidence.]

2. "This is one of those cases that will always haunt me," says Tom Lock, the Johnston County district attorney.

[Opinion. He thinks it will, but gives no evidence.]

3. In the bedroom, 14-year-old Brandon had committed suicide with a rifle after killing his brother Kyle and sister Marnie. Their mother discovered the bodies.

[Because nobody saw these things happen, we call these strong inferences. They aren't facts because they weren't directly observed.]

4. It turned out the Warrens had home schooled before, in Arizona, where they were convicted of child abuse. An investigator there wrote: "The children are tortured physically and emotionally." That's information North Carolina school officials are not required to collect.

[I would say this is mostly inference. The investigator did not know if any homeschooling was going on in the home; the family only claimed they were home schooling. It is also unlikely that the Arizona investigator saw abuse happen; he or she probably only inferred it from evidence that he or she saw.]

5. Since it became legal in North Carolina in 1985, the number of home school students has jumped from just a few hundred to more than 50,000. But there's been no change in the number of state employees overseeing the program - just three for the entire state.

[Fact; this is verifiable information.]

6. Marcia Herman-Giddens is on the state task force that reviewed the Warren case. The conclusion: home school laws "allow persons who maltreat children to maintain social isolation in order for the abuse and neglect to remain undetected."

[Opinion. How does she know homeschooling is what allowed these people to safely abuse? We can’t verify this, and she hasn’t shown how she has inferred it from other facts, so it is an opinion.]

7. But Hal Young, an advocate for home school parents, says most parents are loving and doing a very good job. . . .

[Possibly an inference. Since Mr. Young is familiar with homeschooling parents, he might have reason to infer this.]

8. The Warrens were acquitted of child abuse charges but spent 45 days in jail for failing to secure a firearm.

[Fact.]

NOW YOU DO THE REST

10. It is estimated that 850,000 children in this country are home-schooled.

[?]

11. The overwhelming majority by parents who have only the best interests of their children at heart.

[?]

12. A CBS News investigation found dozens of cases of parents convicted or accused of murder or child abuse who were teaching their children at home, out of the public eye.

[?]

13. In Iowa, a father is serving life, and a mother goes on trial later this month, for killing their 10-year-old adopted son and burying him at their house.

[?]

14. Because they were home schooling, no one noticed he was missing for more than a year.

[?]

15. "The genuine home schoolers are doing a great job with their children, but there is a subgroup of people that are keeping them in isolation, keeping them from public view because the children often do have visible injuries," says Herman-Giddens.

[?]

16. Hal Young and other home school advocates vigorously defend the right to teach their children at home without government intrusion.

[?]

17. "The cases that you've mentioned are very, very rare - extremely rare," says Young.

[?]

18. In eight states, parents don't have to tell anyone they're home schooling. Unlike teachers, in 38 states and the District of Columbia, parents need virtually no qualifications to home school. Not one state requires criminal background checks to see if parents have abuse convictions.

[?]

Copyright November 07, 2003, all rights reserved. 8310 views


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