2015.44: One out of Seven—an F for McBrayer


Justin McBrayer laments the fact that our public schools are teaching our children that there are no moral facts, and therefore no moral truths. He gives seven examples, from online fact vs. opinion worksheets, of facts that kids are taught are opinions:

— Copying homework assignments is wrong.— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

— All men are created equal.

— It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

— It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

— Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.

— Drug dealers belong in prison.

All of these are opinions, with one possible exception of the sixth:

Copying homework assignments is wrong: May be true or false depending on circumstances. If by "assignments" you mean "the description of work to be done," the statement is wrong. If by "assignments" you mean "the answers," the statement may be right or wrong depending on the circumstances—some assignments require students to collaborate.

Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior: Often untrue. Aside from the repetition of others' words in literature and drama, occasionally an emphatic curse adds to communication.

All men are created equal: Demonstrably false. Some men are taller, some shorter; some are smarter, some dumber; some more handsome, some less.

It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism: McBrayer cannot possibly be serious. This is his opinion, which some others share; they are wrong. Is something that is falsely believed to be true strictly speaking an opinion? ((Here's an example, from the same worksheets, of a statement described as fact:

It is illegal to yell out "Fire" in a crowded movie theater.

The instructions on the worksheet do not say to assume that the statement is true. If true, this would be fact. But it is untrue.))

It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol: It's okay for them to vote, drive, have sex, get married, and die in foreign wars, but it's wrong for them to drink alcohol?

Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat: If true, this would qualify as a fact. I'm not convinced, but I'll give him this one out of mercy.

Drug dealers belong in prison: Now McBrayer is just clowning me. Some drug dealers belong in prison, maybe. But the owner of the corner liquor store? Your local barista? The checker selling cigarettes at Kroger?

In short, McBrayer is unable to distinguish opinion from fact, and thinks that society would be better if schools were not teaching kids to do so.

I disagree, of course. I'd rather live in a world of people who critically question opinions such as those that McBrayer adopts—do drug dealers belong in prison? is it worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our countries from terrorism?—than in a world of McBrayers who think that their opinions are fact.

McBrayer uses the example, it’s wrong to kill people for fun, as something that schools are "teaching children … is not true." While I agree with McBrayer that there is moral truth, and that this statement is true, I'm more comfortable with a citizenry willing to examine this, as well as McBrayer's opinions, than one that uncritically accepts them all as true. That it is wrong to kill people for fun is easily enough derived from other moral principles and intuitions; that It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol is not.


17 responses to “2015.44: One out of Seven—an F for McBrayer”

  1. As to the footnote, while the worksheet itself does not address assumption of truth or not, I did like the containing website refreshing:

     Even though this statement is incorrect, I teach students that this is still a fact, even though it is not true.

    Good to see that the concept of "falsifiable" has not entirely disappeared in the anti-science rush.  The cited statement is a fact.  Whether a true fact or not, I'm not qualified to hold an opinion.

     

  2. Way to miss the point in an obtuse, stereotypically lawyer-like fashion. Embarrassing lack of perspective, really. I would have expected a 14 year old to have written these rebuttals.

    “All men are created equal: Demonstrably false. Some men are taller, some shorter; some are smarter, some dumber; some more handsome, some less.”

    Some men are born with different skin color. Some men are born into different classes. Thankfully, in modern society, we recognize that human rights and equality are independent of biological and societal facts.

    • There is a certain sense in which the statement, “all men are created equal” is true, but for a statement to be true it must be true all of the time. If it is false once it is false. We pretend, but most of us don’t believe that individuals should each other as equal (would you date a girl with a nasty personality?) nor that society should treat everyone as equal (Michael Jordan makes more money than me, and most people are okay with that), but that the law should. I agree that the law should, but others disagree, and still others think that society should. This is all opinion, which should be subjected to robust scrutiny rather than hypocritical pretense. 

      So I am pretty sure from your comment that it’s you who is missing the point, but because I enjoy banging my head against walls of deliberate ignorance  I’ll restate it in little words, which you may read as slowly as you need to: Most of his “moral facts” are opinions. Teaching that opinions are facts is bad. 

  3. You’ve completely missed the point alright. McBrayer was listing examples of statements that were claimed to have no truth value. Even if the statement is “demonstrably false”, it would still have a truth value as opposed to an opinion like “blue is the best color”.

    • Your statements of opinion are irrebuttably true to you, and demonstrably false to me—”all men are created equal” is the example that you chose, just as McBrayer chose those seven things as examples of facts that the curriculum calls opinions. McBrayer says, “Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not.” So—according to McBrayer—opinions may have truth values, but facts are true.

      If you think “It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism” is “moral truth,” or “fact,” or has a truth value that “blue is the best color” lacks, you’re reading the wrong blog. There’s nothing for you here. I can suggest a wide range of authoritarian writers more amicable to your perspective.

  4. Well first off I haven't chosen any examples other than "blue is the best color". Perhaps you are confusing me with someone else?

    Second when you say "Your statements of opinion are irrebuttably true to you, and demonstrably false to me" that is exactly the point. We are dealing with two different types of statements. Factual statements aren't statements which can be true for you but false for me. Either they are true, or they are false. Either it's wrong for someone under age 21 to drink or it's not. They are making a descriptive claim about the way the world actually is. Now we can disagree over whether that really is the case or not, but we can't disagree over what class of statement this belongs to.

     

    • My apologies: I get my anonymous commenters confused, which reminds me why I used to enforce that policy.

      Read the piece to which I was referring: McBrayer says that facts are true. Then he gives, as examples of things that are facts, things about which people can reasonably disagree (but that some people—implicitly him—believe to be true). It is irrebuttably true to some that it is wrong for anyone under age 21 to drink alcohol. It is false to me (but unfalsifiable). McBrayer—and perhaps others who hold it irrebuttably true—would call it a fact. I call it an opinion, no more true than “blue is the best color.”

      If you believe something that is not true, or if you believe something that is true without having reason to believe it, you don’t know it, and it is not a fact. You just believe it. It is merely your opinion.

      So we have “it is wrong for anyone under 21 to drink alcohol” and we have “it is wrong to kill for fun.”

      McBrayer believes that the former is true, and has reason to believe that it is true. I believe that the latter is true, and have reason to believe that it is true.

      What’s the difference?

      More people share my view than share McBrayer’s. In fact, most people share a frame of reference—underlying principles and intuitions, reasons to believe—from which my statement can be derived, but not a frame of reference from which McBrayer’s statement can be. But truth isn’t a popularity contest. Or is it?

      Discerning fact from opinion is important. I’d rather that the young learned to err on the side of opinion, and to rigorously challenge opinions, than to err on the side of fact. Respect for authority has killed many more people than questioning it ever could.

  5. When Mcbayer lays out the definition of fact vs opinion that is what he finds troubling. You keep returning to this, but that's not Mcbayers position. That's the position he feels is troubling. The list of things that follows is taken from one of the fact versus opinion worksheets that again, he finds troubling. 

    Here's his take on the problem with those definitions:

    First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.

    But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are eitherfacts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.

    So again, when he states that a fact is something true and opinion is something to be believed that's not his position. That's the position he's critiquing. Now with that in mind you say: 

    "If you believe something that is not true, or if you believe something that is true without having reason to believe it, you don’t know it, and it is not a fact. You just believe it. It is merely your opinion."

    And here's where you and Mcbayer part ways. Whether or not I know why force = mass x acceleration, it is still is a fact regardless of my personal belief or non-belief. Whether I have a good reason to believe it (perhaps I'm ignorant of physics) doesn't change whether it describes a factual relationship about the world. Facts are facts independent of what we think about them.

    Let's take a closer look at your example of "it is wrong to kill for fun". Are you saying that if you were entirely ignorant of the world that this would no longer be true? So prior to learning that killing for fun is wrong it was justifiable to kill for fun? 

    But truth isn’t a popularity contest. Or is it?

    The problem is this leads to things like slavery having been morally justifiable for the majority of its practice because people believed it was. Your not endorsing such nonsense are you?

    • Wow, your reading comprehension really sucks. McBrayer thinks that “facts are things that are true” is part of the “consistent intellectual foundation” that “our children deserve.” There is no other way to read the penultimate paragraph of his piece.

      And he’s right: facts are things that are true. I erred in my last comment by saying that if you believe something that is true without having reason to believe it, it is not a fact. You don’t know it, you only believe it, but it is still a fact. The fact/opinion dichotomy is a false one; that’s McBrayer’s complaint, and I agree with it.

      But back to the problem: McBrayer gives seven examples of facts that kids are taught are opinions. Of his seven examples, six are opinions. Teaching children that opinions are moral facts is more dangerous than teaching children that moral facts are opinions.

      Fact.

  6. What is it about anonymous commenters coming to offer, as fact, their own interpretations of McBrayer’s column? I find that anonymity is not a spur to thought.

    • I mean, I blissfully plod along for years, ignoring my anonymous-comment policy, then in the course of a couple days get three first-name-only commenters (one commenter using three names?) throwing up unsupported theories about what McBrayer meant, reminding me that most people don’t have the character to put as much thought into anonymous comments as they would put into comments that would forever be connected to their names.

      An earnest self-entitled Fort Lewis College freshman with a crush on the associate prof, I think.

  7. I think that if you try to evaluate any concept based purely on shorthand references and equivocated definitions, you’re going to have a bad time.

  8. Why not take SHG’s view on anon?

    Although I am slightly shocked at the lack of clarity of thought demonstrated. Doubt and critical thinking are the only tools that humans have to improve this world, without them we’re just simians in clothes.

    On the scientific examples people really need to take a brief education – theories are not wild ideas but instead hypotheses which are tested and accurate within parameters. So in a Newtonian world F=ma works but very small or very large it may break down. Therefore neither appropriately described as facts or opinions.

    You were also too kind giving him 1/7 as a fact.

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