OPINIONATED?

30 August 2021

   It started with a tongue-in-cheek essay, my reaction to Tom Nichols' book, “The Death of Expertise” (Oxford University Press, 2017) and to his conclusion (that I agree with) that half the American public now rejects "knowledge" and "expertise," and believes that an "opinion" doesn't need to have any substantive basis, and that one opinion is just as good as any other.

   This anti-intellectual/anti-expert stance didn’t begin with Donald Trump, but I think it’s safe to blame him for a lot of its expansion. His “I know more about everything than anybody else in the world” (said often, without any suggestion he was purposely exaggerating or didn’t believe it) made him just the right sort of  leader for a new cult of uninformed, misinformed, and didn’t-want-to-be-informed yokels. We’ve had cult leaders before – the saying “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a reference to Jim Jones, a charismatic “religious” leader who convinced 900 people to commit suicide by drinking cyanide in a grape-flavored beverage (actually Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid), but I don’t know of any others who have succeeded in Pied-pipering half of the population of an advanced nation.

   In any event, my essay prompted a question from a reader: can there be “informed opinions” that are different from, or contrary to, the findings of the “experts?” My answer was yes, but with a qualifier: Every definition I can find of "opinion" suggests that there has to be some basis for the belief. It may not be what the "experts" think, but there is something that makes you think you may be right - or, as "right" as they are. Anything else is a hope, a wish, an unquestioning adoption of faulty information, obstructionism, or just obstinacy.

   I did add one caveat to my definition of an “informed” opinion: I do think that there are personal opinions that have nothing to do with "facts," but are still legitimate. For instance, when I was proposing taking some California condors into captivity to enhance the chances of successful reproduction, more than a few people felt strongly that condors shouldn't be brought into captivity, even to save the population from extinction. They might agree that my reasoning was sound, but it still seemed "wrong" to them. The final decision had to be made on other factors, some biological and some legal, but their opinion was still legitimate.

 

   It turns out that I was wrong about needing some basis for a belief to qualify as an “opinion.” Further examination of dictionaries and other sources showed me that an opinion can be anything from the conclusion of an expert (like a judge or a doctor) to some idea coming direct from one of our bodily orifices. Plato (in Book VII of “The Republic”) defined opinion as something in the spectrum between knowledge and ignorance. Thomas Hobbes seemed to agree that any utterance was an “opinion,” “although sometimes they are absurd words, which mean nothing, impossible to understand.”[1] Despite this acceptance of any utterance as an opinion, I think that the “one opinion is just as good an any other” stance has to be taken on directly, and some rules made. The laissez faire approach has already caused chaos; think what we will be like as a nation, and as a people, if we continue to acquiesce to absurdity.

 

   I propose a hierarchy of opinion below, but first I want to talk about “facts.” Within the general public, there seems to be some confusion on what a fact is, and how a fact might relate to an opinion. Compared to opinions, facts are pretty rare, but you’ll know them when you see them. There’s no mistaking them, because they can only be understood one way. For example, if I say I was born on a certain day in a certain year at a certain place, that’s a fact. There is probably paperwork to prove it, and there is no “alternate fact” [2] about where and when I was born. Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japanese aviators on a specific date, period – a fact. Although in medieval times, some thought the Earth was flat, the fact is that it has always been spherical. (I guess the more accurate term is oblate spheroid, or oblate ellipsoid.) Facts can (and should be) used to form opinions, but opinions cannot be used to make facts.

 

   So, here is my hierarchy of opinion:

   1. You have devoted considerable time to the study of something. You have collected and weighed all the facts; you have looked at related data; you have tested all your hypotheses to the extent possible; and you have been able to answer all questions and objections raised. This has led to an opinion on that subject. You may not be able to prove that your opinion is the only one possible but, for now, you can truthfully say that your opinion on that subject is better than anybody else’s.

   If at some future time, someone develops information that challenges your own, then (1) you could lose your bragging rights, or (2), and more likely, you both would find yourselves in Hierarchy No. Two.

   Perhaps another example of this: a number of individuals pool their knowledge of a subject, and come up with an opinion that they all agree on. That opinion is better than anyone else’s, unless you can find a number of similarly qualified individuals who agree on an alternative opinion.

  

   2. You have devoted considerable time to the study of something. You have collected and weighed all the facts; you have looked at related data; you have tested all your hypotheses to the extent possible; and you have been able to answer all questions and objections raised. This has led to an opinion on that subject.

   Someone else has followed the same procedures on the same subject, but has arrived at a different conclusion/opinion than yours. Neither of you has the final “proof,” so one remains “as good as the other” until new information or analysis lifts one to a more likely level (or another opinion surfaces that is better than either of the originals).

   Two examples frequently cited for this level of opinion are how Earth was formed, and how different kinds of animals and plants developed (“Creation” or “Evolution”). For the origins of the Earth, the two major opinions are about as different from one another as opinions on the same subject can be. Some claim that, by a certain process, “God” made the world and all that inhabit it. Others claim that certain physical and chemical reactions occurred that caused a “Big Bang” that formed Earth. Both sides can adequately describe the process to their advocates, but neither side can accept the rationale of the other. Those opposing the “God” theory ask: if God made everything, who made God? Those questioning the Big Bang ask a similar question: where did the Matter come from that caused the reaction the created the planet? Neither group can – or ever will be able to – “prove” its theory. Nobody in either group thinks that one opinion is as good as the other; they just think their theory is better.

   Creation versus Evolution comes to a similar stalemate. Evolutionists regularly forget that the theory of evolution is a theory – it can’t be proven, and so far, there have been no identifications of the supposed “missing links” between the various groups of animals. There are obvious similarities between animal groups that might be explained by processes of natural selection and genetic modification still occurring today. Creationists can sometimes accept ongoing evolutionary processes, but still argue that the similarities between organisms are just what one might expect from one Artist creating them all. Both opinions have their proponents who aren’t swayed by other arguments, but neither group can “prove” its belief.

 

  3. My third category includes opinions that are strictly personal, and those that involve short-term assessments. Both types involve some understanding of a subject or issue, but neither requires that the opinion be the “best,” or even in competition with other opinions on the same subject. I gave the illustration above of someone understanding why I wanted to take condors into captivity, but personally thinking that it would be best to just let the condors take their chances in the wild. If the person understands my rationale, then the personal opinion is valid.

   Personal opinions are unchallengeable. If you don’t like a particular singer’s style, you don’t like it. If you didn’t enjoy a particular book, you didn’t enjoy it. On the other hand, if your opinion is that she isn’t a good singer, or it wasn’t a good book, then you should be able to state your reasons. Your likes are your own; assessing the quality of a book or a performance should be debatable, and open to other opinions.

   We form opinions from short-term assessments all the time. If someone says he thinks the Browns will win the Super Bowl because they have nice outfits, it isn’t opinion. But if he has studied the team lineup, and has looked over the recent record of both the Browns and their opponents, his opinion doesn’t have to be the same as anybody else’s to be a legitimate one. How good or bad the opinion is will become clear by the end of the football season.

 

  4. Non-opinions, a.k.a., vain babblings.[3] Despite some other opinions to the contrary, my opinion is that anything that spews out of someone’s mouth is not an opinion. In my opinion, any real opinion has to have some thought behind it. It doesn’t have to be much, but there has to be something there that separates the utterance from the effects of a  breeze disturbing the atmosphere around someone’s head.

   If I say that I don’t like a football player’s uniform, it’s my personal opinion and doesn’t need any explanation or qualifiers (although you can give more info, if you want). If I say that those are not good uniforms – not my like or dislike, but an assessment of the merits of a product -  then,  to make it an opinion, I need to explain how I came to that conclusion.

   If you still wonder how Donald Trump could have lost the last Presidential election, wonder all you like; it’s a free country. But if you “opine” that there was massive voter fraud -  in the face of exhaustive analysis at all levels of government and non-government, by both political parties that has shown that even minor irregularities were rare – then you are not “opining” at all, you are just vainly babbling.

   If you decide not to get vaccinated for Covid, you’re a jerk. If you say you’re not getting vaccinated because the Government is actually injecting some mind-control agent into your brain, you’re a delusional jerk. As an “opinion,” it is not.

 

   Anyway, those are my opinions about opinions. If you think differently, that’s your opinion – or, maybe not.


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[1] This is often quoted, but I’m not sure where it occurs in the writings of Thomas Hobbes; probably in “The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic.”

[2] The term “alternative fact” gained some notoriety when in 2017 Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, defended the Administration’s blatant and easily provable overestimate of the number of people at Trump’s inauguration by saying that the Administration were using “alternative facts.”

[3] Christian New Testament, 2 Timothy 2.16


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