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Subject: Subjective vs. Objective rss

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Laurentiu Cristofor
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This post takes a closer look at what subjectivity and objectivity are and at the different value that opinions have. I write this so I can have an extended answer ready for when people bring up such topics.

Let's start with some definitions. And because words have different definitions according to context, I'll only present the definitions that are relevant to qualifying statements as being subjective or objective.

I'll start with definitions offered by google define:

subjective: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
objective: (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

Both of these refer to opinions, so let's see what an opinion is:

opinion: a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

Let's try another source - the following definitions are picked from Merriam-Webster:

subjective: modified or affected by personal views, experience, or background.
objective: expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.

Note that these definitions no longer refer to opinions. That is because Merriam-Webster has a more general definition of 'opinion':

opinion: a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter.

We've got two sources now. What do we get out of them?

When it comes to 'subjective' and 'objective', both sets of definitions agree:

- subjective statements are based on feelings or tastes.
- objective statements are based on facts.

There is however a major difference in the definitions of 'opinion'. The Merriam-Webster definition is more general - it basically considers 'opinion' as a synonym of 'judgment'. OTOH, google define specifically interprets 'opinion' as being a judgment not based on facts.

This discrepancy seems to confuse a number of people who seem to hold both definitions in their head at once without noticing their separation. On one hand they use the Merriam-Webster definition to claim that all statements made by people are opinions, but then they also superimpose the google definition to imply that all statements made by people are subjective and thus that there can be no objectivity.

So here is an objective statement: if we go by the Merriam-Webster definition, then opinions are not equal - there are opinions based on feelings (subjective opinions) and then there are opinions based on fact or analysis of facts (objective opinions). The latter are always valuable. Even the first can be valuable, but they are not very enlightening because by their nature they do not provide any explanation.

I've also seen some people that seem to think that a statement is not objective if there is no universal agreement on it. I'll just point out that there is nothing in the definition of 'objective' that requires you to convince every last fool on Earth to agree about a statement, for that statement to be finally accepted as being objective.

Objective vs. subjective in game reviews

Game reviews are why the above discussion is relevant to BGG. Discussions about subjectivity are generated whenever a critical review is being written. Few people seem concerned about the objectivity of positive reviews, but write a negative one and people will immediately jump to claim that it's just a subjective opinion, in now way better than their own subjective opinion, which happens to be subjective. No statement is too objective to deflect their subjective attacks.

Most reviews contain a combination of objective and subjective opinions. I often see subjective commentary on top of an objective evaluation.

For example:

Alice: I don't like game X because it has a very complex setup; it takes 15 min to arrange all player boards, unpack tokens from bags, assign tokens and money to players, set tokens on proper positions on tracks, shuffle tiles and cards, and create respective piles and decks. I sold the game after just 1 play.

Bob: But I like doing that! I like touching all these finely crafted components and putting them together. While I am doing this, I usually remind the other players about the rules of the game. By the time I review the rules with them, all has taken shape on the table and we're ready for a wonderful experience. I love game X and it will stay in my collection for years to come! Yours is another example of a subjective opinion inflicted on us.

What is subjective and what is objective here?

Well, Alice makes an objective point: the setup of the game X is complex. Nitpickers will probably say that even this is a subjective statement, but it is simply based on a comparison with the setup time of the average game, which is a factual evaluation, not a feeling. What can be nitpicked as being indeed subjective is Alice's dislike of a complex setup procedure.

On the other hand, Bob doesn't even counter Alice's evaluation of the setup; Bob doesn't say that the setup is not complex and instead they just express their subjective appreciation of a complex setup procedure.

Which comment is more helpful to a potential purchaser of game X? The one with more objective points is more likely to contain information generally helpful for the evaluation of the game. Most people will know whether they prefer a complex setup procedure or not - they don't really care whether Alice disliked it or whether Bob enjoyed it - the fact that the game has a complex setup procedure is the only thing they need to know. In other words, in Alice's review, the subjective content is far less meaningful than the objective content. Discarding the latter because of the existence of the former makes no sense. Especially given that if we do that, we're only left with the subjective content of Bob's comments.

Objective statements are more helpful because they describe aspects of the game rather than emotional reactions. Emotional reactions don't guarantee the same reaction in others. I admit that I was also influenced at times by such emotional reviews that promoted games that I then did not like at all, but I just reacted to the reviewer's enthusiasm instead of looking further, to find details about how the game actually played.

Unfortunately, objective statements are more difficult to make, because they require introspection to determine what game mechanisms generated our enjoyment. This is not as easy as simply describing our emotional reactions (which is perhaps the main reason why we see descriptions of emotional reactions more often than objective analysis). But the benefit of the effort of making objective statements is two-fold:

(a) we provide more useful information to others.
(b) we gain more insight ourselves.

I recommend the following feedback cycle for analyzing games objectively:

1. Collect a set of criteria that you expect a game to deliver on. This doesn't have to be fixed for all games - you could have a set of criteria for abstract games and another for thematic games; or even different criteria depending on theme. The only important thing is to have the set of criteria clear in your mind.
2. When analyzing a game, analyze it against these criteria. When you write a review, state these criteria (I know, I haven't done this part in all my reviews either).
3. If you find that you dislike a game despite meeting your criteria (or you like it despite not meeting your criteria), then adjust your criteria. A criterion that was not met in a game you liked can be relaxed and a criterion can be added to identify what made you dislike a game that met all your initial criteria.

Keep iterating and you'll find that it becomes easier to describe what you like and what you don't like about a game. And people can claim that your criteria are subjective, but at least your evaluation against those criteria will be objective.

This kind of iterative approach is necessary for getting at the bottom of any concept. We may never discover its very nature, but more iterations will get us closer to it. Deploring the fact that the true nature of things is unreachable (as some philosophers do) and claiming that it is pointless to even attempt to reach it, will certainly not get us closer to it. This iterative investigation is not a new concept either - it is very similar to exploring a graphical depiction of a fractal set: each time you zoom into a fractal image, the fractal program actually computes more iterations to determine the shape of that set, revealing a new set of details.

If any interesting related observations will emerge from comments, I will add them in edits below.
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Joe Huber

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So subjectively, you prefer objective game reviews?

While I'm all for including objective information in reviews, my favorite reviews, subjectively, have been those which explain in an entertaining manner why the reviewer does or does not like the game in question. And sometimes objective information can stand in the way of this - rules explanations, descriptions of the mechanisms, and even such data as price are objectively relevant, but subjectively - not that interesting. An ideal game review would tell me what I'll think of a game without even playing it (as opposed to either objective data about the game or the subjective opinion of the author) - and while that's a sufficiently difficult task that I've rarely had it occur, when it has it's often been the mix of subjective and objective information which has done the trick, leaning more heavily to the subjective.
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Quote:
Most people will know whether they prefer a complex setup procedure or not - they don't really care whether Alice disliked it or whether Bob enjoyed it - the fact that the game has a complex setup procedure is the only thing they need to know.

I agree -- I typically care more about this sort of thing which we can roughly call "objective" than about whether Alice disliked it or whether Bob enjoyed it.

But then I'm confused why you so strongly advise (and even call necessary) the following:
Quote:
3. If you find that you dislike a game despite meeting your criteria (or you like it despite not meeting your criteria), then adjust your criteria. A criterion that was not met in a game you liked can be relaxed and a criterion can be added to identify what made you dislike a game that met all your initial criteria.

This seems to be trying to fudge (to put it cynically) or refine (to put it positively) your personal weighting of objective properties of a game in order to be able to justify your like or dislike of the game.

Why go to that trouble to attempt to "objectively" rationalize your like or dislike of the game, if the reader in principle just wants the objective info and doesn't care whether you personally liked the game or not, and thus doesn't care whether e.g. you personally highly dislike or only somewhat dislike a long setup time, and doesn't care whether you even know why you personally like or dislike a game?

Which is not to say that I don't agree it can be personally enlightening to explore why I like something which I think I "logically" or "objectively" shouldn't like. But it seems like a distraction from the supposedly primary goal of simply providing objective info about the game to the reader. But perhaps I am not fully grokking why you want to do that iteration to try to rationalize/explain your personal like or dislike of the game.

Or to put it another way:

The first part of your post made me think you were perhaps going to note that a good useful review does not even need to state whether the reviewer liked the game or not. But then the ending pulled the rug out from under that, and you seem to place the reviewer's personal like or dislike into the center stage.
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I will never understand why people feel that reviews need to change, rather than the way that they look at reviews needs to change.
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Marc Hawkins
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huber wrote:
So subjectively, you prefer objective game reviews?

While I'm all for including objective information in reviews, my favorite reviews, subjectively, have been those which explain in an entertaining manner why the reviewer does or does not like the game in question. And sometimes objective information can stand in the way of this - rules explanations, descriptions of the mechanisms, and even such data as price are objectively relevant, but subjectively - not that interesting. An ideal game review would tell me what I'll think of a game without even playing it (as opposed to either objective data about the game or the subjective opinion of the author) - and while that's a sufficiently difficult task that I've rarely had it occur, when it has it's often been the mix of subjective and objective information which has done the trick, leaning more heavily to the subjective.


This is where I sit too.

For my tastes, there are already so many reviews which, under the guise of objectivity (which is always a situated form of subjectivity), tell me little more than information I could glean for myself elsewhere (e.g., price, components, rules), becoming little more than a *preview* (aka a review that could be made without ever having played the game).

I'd be far more interested in why reviewers like or do not like the game, and that this be given attention in critical and creative ways (e.g., thinking with metaphors, making comparisons to other games, speaking to the invisible fabric that the game weaves, etc.) as games are far more than the sum of their observable and quantifiable parts.
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I find that my review of a game is the most important information to my decision if a game is good, neutral, or ungood.

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I'm an Ameritrasher, so find objective summaries of the rules useful, since my alternative is to sit through a video (zzz...) or 40+ page rulebook (no way). In fact, I just reviewed two 192 page roleplaying rulebooks as a summary of each chapter, with a sentence or two of opinion stated as... opinion.

As for subjective comments, I have noticed some reviewers presenting their game interests before the review, and I like this. I also like how some reviewers will put their own thoughts on the game after describing the mechanics.

As others have said, I think any objective statement by a reviewer will have some subjectivity in it, but I do like how reviewers attempt to keep them separate, or at least are conscious about separating subjective opinion for objective game mechanics summaries.
 
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Laurentiu wrote:
I'll start with definitions offered by google define:

subjective: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
objective: (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

Both of these refer to opinions,

Actually, objectivity defers opinions. Case closed.
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C Bazler
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If someone gives a value judgment about a game in any way, then it's subjective by definition. If a reviewer simply lists off facts about the game ("It is a deck builder," "You roll to resolve combat," etc), but does not give an opinion whatsoever, then you can call it definitively objective. But the moment the reviewer adds an opinion "... which is why the game is good/bad," it is no longer objective.

There is no way to "prove" a game is good or bad. So it is impossible to have a truly objective game review (as opposed to a game description, a play-through, a tutorial, or a components overview, for example).
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Michael Dillenbeck
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TERMINOLOGY

Subjective - Based on qualitative data ("I like . . .", "It makes me feel . . .", etc); in other words, non-measurable data.

Objective - Based on quantitative data ("It weights . . .", "It takes, on average ___ minutes with a standard deviation of ___ seconds to . . .", etc); in other words, measurable data.

Opinions by their nature are subjective.

PRESENTATION AND DISCLOSURE

How many reviews do you find have measurable data that can be gathered that is also informative, rather than some subjective data. How many reviews do you find disclose personal and data biases? This is why it is important to know about the reviewer when reading any review. (For example, back in the day there was Siskel and Ebert for movie reviews - and almost universally a movie they praised as "confusing" and generally panned, like the anime Akira, was a movie I enjoyed; their tastes were more mass market consumerist film, and I knew if they liked a film that I wouldn't because of their personal bias.)

So, in 2017 one of my two resolutions was "no more Top x Lists". Why? It is because of another trait that some reviewers push out - that of authoritativeness. A "top" list implies that it is a definitive and absolute list (at least in terms of how one perceives word choice in the USA), but in actuality most of these lists are "of the games I've owned and played once or twice and maybe several times, and of those I remember, these are the ones I recall liking the most". Of course, there can be qualifiers, like "MY Top 10 favorite games of 2017" or something like that - that is a disclosure of bias. However, compare these two titles: "Top 10 Things Game Designers Need to Stop Doing" vs "Sam, Zee, and Tom's Top 10 Things We Wish Game Designers Would Stop Doing" - how does the title change the narrative of the information being presented?

VALUE OF REVIEWS

Objective statements are not useful as often they do not have adequate disclosure. "____ takes ___ minutes to set up, and play time ranges from . . .". Set up time for whom? For an avid hobbyist gamer setting up alone? For a group of hobbyist gamers? For first time setup with punching tokens and stickering wood blocks and anything else? For a person with severe arthritis, or someone with Down syndrome? What is the population size, how many data points were used to establish this, and what is the standard deviation of time to set up? It may be an objective statement, but it is really a fairly meaningless statement that provides little information. "I prefer to play games with lots of little bits, and I use GMT counter trays, custom deck trays, and cleanup always involves shuffling decks when putting them away so the game is ready to go; it take me less than 5 minutes to set up this game and get playing, and . . ." holds a lot more useful information that the objective statement.

Objective and subjective statements are of equal value, and both suffer from the same lack of disclosure in a general review. The advantage of watching a small subset of reviewers over time is learning the undisclosed biases that they have. You learn their tastes and how to compare them to you. Good reviewers are ones who strive to present data from multiple viewpoints, disclose biases, and add in relevant notation that influenced their perception during a review.

WHY REVIEWS ARE THE WAY THEY ARE

Unfortunately, there is no one investing in the time it takes to make objective reviews and people are inherently lazy. They don't want to create a review for a boardgame taking hundreds of hours gathering individual data points on how a game is played, and if they did most people don't want to wade through academic reviews and learn about review biases. Many want emotional connection to help justify a purchase decision, and a sales pitch doesn't involve "across a group of 112 hobbyist gamers (see appendix A for plays detailing rule set used and number of players, plus experience of players as measured with a Klein-Bottel Modern Board Gamer Skill Ranking algorithm), the average setup time is 570 seconds with a standard deviation of 72 seconds" but "its a fun, fast, and sets up in under 10 minutes!"

So, the quality of reviews has just as much to do with the audience as the reviewer. Its a product, and people don't want journal quality reviews of board games.

OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS METHODS AND THEIR FAILURE

Ultimately, I think objective analyses of board games would be doomed to failure. First, you'd need to be able to gather a statistically significant population - and with the diversity of of populations, you'd need to probably need several population sets to gather data from. Then you'd need to define the data you want to analyze and how you measure it. Finally, once you have the measurement, you still need to interpret the data. What is meaningful. Finally, you'd need to find a target audience who would appreciate such data as well as those willing to create the reviews (probably with no funding, which would greatly harm the ability to collect data).

The danger of pseudo-objective analysis is giving an audience a sense of objectivity without disclosing the subjectivity of the presented data. You see it all the time where correlation is presented as causation in mass media. Lets face it, the typical target audience member in the hobby does not have the education of the willingness to interpret objective data in a meaningful way, as is evident by the way objective data is presented currently in reviews.

(Oh, and thanks for an interesting discussion - in the back of my mind I was thinking about how I would like more objective rules, but by confronting the issues with doing so I realize its a fairly bad idea.)
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Laurentiu Cristofor
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huber wrote:
An ideal game review would tell me what I'll think of a game without even playing it


But practically speaking, have you analyzed what a review would have to do to achieve that? Did you gain any insights that you can share?

russ wrote:

But then I'm confused why you so strongly advise (and even call necessary) the following:
Quote:
3. If you find that you dislike a game despite meeting your criteria (or you like it despite not meeting your criteria), then adjust your criteria. A criterion that was not met in a game you liked can be relaxed and a criterion can be added to identify what made you dislike a game that met all your initial criteria.

This seems to be trying to fudge (to put it cynically) or refine (to put it positively) your personal weighting of objective properties of a game in order to be able to justify your like or dislike of the game.


Because people can't know why they like what they like unless they go through this process. And what they don't know, they can't explain to others either.

This is why I also added later:

Laurentiu wrote:

And people can claim that your criteria are subjective, but at least your evaluation against those criteria will be objective.


Taking the Alex/Bob example, the criteria there was about the complexity of game setup. But later, Alice may find another game with complex game setup that she actually likes. At that point she might realize that it's not the complexity of the game setup that matters alone, but whether that complexity is justified by the payoff of the game experience. Her criterion can change from "simple game setup" to "setup complexity proportional to game complexity".

The advantage of knowing your criteria is that you can state your points more effectively by focusing on those criteria. And readers can also decide on their own whether to care about those criteria or not.

russ wrote:

Why go to that trouble to attempt to "objectively" rationalize your like or dislike of the game, if the reader in principle just wants the objective info


Because that objective rationalization is objective info. The readers may not draw the same conclusions out of it as the reviewer did (because they don't share the same criteria), but that doesn't mean that they would never find it useful.

Sam and Max wrote:

As others have said, I think any objective statement by a reviewer will have some subjectivity in it


Well, what do you think is subjective in the following statement:

Quote:
Tic-Tac-Toe is a game of limited complexity that cannot maintain the interest of adult players once they figure out that:
(a) they cannot force a win unless the opponent makes a mistake
(b) playing perfectly is easy


Note that this is not a statement about the rules or components of a game. Those descriptions are fine, but let me be clear that they are not the main objective contributions that I am looking for in reviews. Sadly, they're the only ones I tend to find.

cbazler wrote:
If someone gives a value judgment about a game in any way, then it's subjective by definition. If a reviewer simply lists off facts about the game ("It is a deck builder," "You roll to resolve combat," etc), but does not give an opinion whatsoever, then you can call it definitively objective. But the moment the reviewer adds an opinion "... which is why the game is good/bad," it is no longer objective.

There is no way to "prove" a game is good or bad. So it is impossible to have a truly objective game review (as opposed to a game description, a play-through, a tutorial, or a components overview, for example).


Just because you don't know how to do something, it doesn't mean that it's impossible to do.

Verbosity wrote:

Ultimately, I think objective analyses of board games would be doomed to failure.


I feel that you're approaching this from a black and white perspective.

I find many useful reviews on BGG. Many of them are among the highest rated reviews for their respective topics. What bothers me is that there seem to be users that deny their existence in an attempt to make every opinion/review the equal of any other.

Also, a reminder of my goal here:

Laurentiu wrote:
I write this so I can have an extended answer ready for when people bring up such topics.


I'd like if my post would accomplish more, but I'm settling for an achievable goal.
 
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Laurentiu wrote:

Well, what do you think is subjective in the following statement:

Quote:
Tic-Tac-Toe is a game of limited complexity that cannot maintain the interest of adult players once they figure out that:
(a) they cannot force a win unless the opponent makes a mistake
(b) playing perfectly is easy


Are these supposed to be objective?

While I share a lot of the values, beliefs and assumptions for these statements to be made in an inter-subjective manner, it's still a big reach to assume that these are universals, and therefore objective statements.
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Joe Huber

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Laurentiu wrote:
huber wrote:
An ideal game review would tell me what I'll think of a game without even playing it


But practically speaking, have you analyzed what a review would have to do to achieve that? Did you gain any insights that you can share?


Not much, because I don't see much value in such an analysis.

But I can say - the reviews which have come closest to achieving this goal have been those that first drew me in - I'm not a big fan of reviews, and so I need to get past my initial reticence. But then, the key has been to explain how the game worked - or didn't work - for the author. Some of that is objective data - mechanisms and the like - but more of it is the author's ability to describe the play experience.
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There is a ladder before me. I am to climb it. "Which hand should you tie behind your back to climb?" you ask me. "Your right or your left?"

I look at you puzzled, as I would like to use both, I have two hands after all that work best together. Climbing is precarious enough and it hadn't occurred to me to make it awkward, to contort myself so unnaturally to ... to what? Aren't we climbing up there for the clearer view?
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Laurentiu Cristofor
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hawk-x- wrote:
Laurentiu wrote:

Well, what do you think is subjective in the following statement:

Quote:
Tic-Tac-Toe is a game of limited complexity that cannot maintain the interest of adult players once they figure out that:
(a) they cannot force a win unless the opponent makes a mistake
(b) playing perfectly is easy


Are these supposed to be objective?

While I share a lot of the values, beliefs and assumptions for these statements to be made in an inter-subjective manner, it's still a big reach to assume that these are universals, and therefore objective statements.


Infected by epistemology, I presume?

Good luck!
 
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The problem is not that people comment one or the other, the problem is more that people do not know how to interpret each.

Objective comments are relative.
- Setup time takes longer than game X.
- Game time is X minutes (+/- factors for new/experiend playthough)
- Game takes up a lot of board space
- Game is cost this much to acquire.
- Complexity is higher than X game (this one borderline, but usually a person comparing two games get their relative complexity sort of in line with the average).

Subjective comments are opinions.
- Game X is really good.
- I like this game more than game X.
- Game X has great artwork.

They can also be combined.
- I like game X better than game Y.
Doublecombo in two subjective opinions linked by an objective reference!

The trick is to find ways to associate the comments (both subjective and objective) to your own references.
If a person is comparing one game she likes to another game she also likes that is relevant information. If you happen to own one of those games and are considering trying the other, then this potential subjective relation could be relevant for you. If that same person has a bigger publication of comparisons (subjective relations) then the combined subjective opinions can create a relation for you in terms of how much you share game taste with her. That relation is objective! You share X out of Y opinions with her.
As long as a person stay true to their taste and provide honest opinions the combined opinions can create an objective reference for you to relate to.

In a way it is similar to movie reviews. You cannot trust an average rating on IMDB for example, at least not for anything more than identifying a potentially really bad or really good movie. One could say the same about BGG ratings. When you take all the different gaming preferences and create an average you just end up with something around the middle.
A much better reference would be if you could tag other players and add them to your own group of "peers". Then filter all the BGG ratings based on how your group of peers rated games, rather than the average. Such a list would have much bigger chance of matching your expectations than the current global list.
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Laurentiu Cristofor
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aziras wrote:
The problem is not that people comment one or the other, the problem is more that people do not know how to interpret each.


I just came across your comment. I agree that many people misuse these words, because they misunderstand their meaning. All this actually ties in with a second post I wrote a couple of days ago:

When did Subjective and Opinion become bad words? (Subjective vs Objective - part 2)

 
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