One of the most powerful ways to improve your critical thinking is to learn to distinguish objective statements from subjective ones — in my opinion, anyway.
Objective statements confine themselves to factual information. Subjective statements include opinions, impressions, beliefs — interpretations of facts. You can verify objective statements, because they deal with verifiable events or facts. Subjective statements are difficult or impossible to verify because they either deal with ephemera or are concerned with the inner thought life of an individual.
Objective: “He gave 40% of his discretionary income to charities while he himself lived in an efficiency apartment.”
Subjective: “He is so generous and self-sacrificing. He gives everything away while living so humbly.”
To verify the first statement, you can look at tax records, and follow the guy home and see where he lives. The second statement asserts no facts for you to verify. You could conduct the same survey of taxes and housing, but to say whether the statement is true or not is strictly a judgement call, based on personal values. One might examine the fellow’s conduct and then agree with the subjective statement and testify it is true. Another might look at the same fellow and conclude he is a fool, and that the subjective statement is false.
Please note that much writing consists of sentences in the form of statements of fact — such as this sentence. Statements that assert facts might be objective or subjective, and of course they may be true or false. Look at these:
“The Earth is made of snow.” Objective, factual, false.
“The Earth is mostly iron, silica and alumina.” Objective, factual, true (I think).
“The Earth is like a snowball in hell.” A statement of fact, but a simile, which is completely subjective. To debate its truth value may have no meaning.
QUIZ: Look back through this article. Most of the sentences are statements that assert facts — like this one. Can you spot the subjective vs. objective? Are my statements true? How do you know? Can you look them up somewhere and verify their claims?
In future posts we will look at some ways to mess around with objective & subjective to shape the meaning of a message and influence the audience. These techniques are common, simple and very powerful; we all use them every day:
- Objective/Subjective Couples lend the firmness of fact to the most facile of fancies. Mr. Romney’s “47%” speech will provide the example.
- Attribution instantly converts the most outrageous statements of subjective opinion into incontrovertible objectivity. What a stunt! Any news article in the world will give the example.
- Qualification converts the most bold statements of fact into humble assertions of opinion. How handy! The last thing you said will be a sufficient example.
Questions? Comments? Your own examples?