Pique'n yer interest 

When did facts become opinions?

We live in an age when truths have become matters of opinion. No longer can you shoot down an argument with a statement of fact - the fact, it seems, has become an argument all its own.

Take Mark Steyn, for example. The columnist for Maclean 's and the National Review was once on National Public Radio talking about how most Muslim countries aren't free. He cited the 2005 Freedom House rankings, a list that evaluates countries for their level of freedom based on political and civil liberties.

The list, according to Steyn, noted that five of the lowest "freedom" scores were Muslim countries, and only three countries with over 20 per cent Muslim populations ranked as free: Benin, Suriname and Serbia and Montenegro.

A caller into the radio show said, "I think you're being hierarchical." Steyn then listed off some statistics such as Gross Domestic Product, literacy and votes. The caller responded, "Well, that's just your opinion." The interpretation of the facts, maybe - but facts and statistics speak for themselves.

We have the same thing happening in the Sea to Sky Corridor. In the course of my reporting over the past couple of months I've found myself running headlong into people who've cast facts as opinions - and vice versa.

In January I got an e-mail from a reader offering very polite criticism of a story I wrote about the Ryan River project north of Pemberton. After some pertinent criticism of my work she wrote at the bottom of the e-mail, "Maybe it is just better to admit there is no good reason for this project to go forward."

Two things there - as a reporter, I simply can't say that. And on the other hand, as I've written before, there are plenty of reasons that people have offered as to why they think the project should move forward. For one thing, it could bring over $1 million in property taxes to the Village of Pemberton if it's incorporated into the municipality.

The response? "We can agree to disagree." Despite my assertion that I would not take a position on the project, my statement of fact turned into an opinion.

Back at UBC it was the same thing. As a student there I reported on student council elections. In the 2008 election a candidate for vice-president, external, got up at an all-candidates' meeting and lambasted Translink for being a "private corporation."

This is patently untrue. Translink's board of directors holds its meetings in camera and takes strategic advice from a council of mayors. It may not be in the public eye but it's still publicly-funded. There's no need to disguise your opinion that it's a "private corporation" as a fact. (To the candidate's credit, she never said it again.)

What kind of an age do we live in when the line's been blurred between facts and opinion? Is it because of technology, and the lack of accountability you face when posting information online? Is it the advent of multiculturalism, which makes it taboo to discuss facts about socio-cultural differences? Is it political correctness, which strikes fear into the hearts of people who want to discuss difficult truths?

Whatever the cause, I think it's fair to say we live in a post-Enlightenment Era. Reason doesn't drive public discourse anymore - passion does. Journalists find themselves having to literally mine for truth out of the rhetoric of activists and politicians.

Sometimes it feels like extracting oil from the tar sands - much as miners have to boil several parts water for every one part of oil, a journalist must put in at least five parts research to extract a single grain of truth. Pretending your opinions are facts makes that bitumen thicker.

Sometimes the use of opinions as facts borders on insulting. In early February I interviewed someone who looked at my writing on IPPs and assumed I was under the spell of a developer. "I'm sure he's taken you out to lunch," the source told me. Then he seemed incredulous when I told him that wasn't the case.

It's ideas like this that are driving public debate - unresearched, unchallenged opinions held by people too scared to submit them to critical scrutiny.

Call me an aging warrior of reason, but I don't think that passionate opinions alone can drive public discourse. If I must swim through thick waters and bitumen to get at the truth, then so be it. But just know that casting facts as opinions can obscure the truth even further.

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