Not All Opinions Are Equal

You’ve likely encountered this scenario: You’re in a debate with someone, either on-line or in person.  You are discussing a topic of which you and the other party disagree.  You’ve laid out your case, presenting sound and difficult to refute evidence, yet the other person persists that they are right and you are wrong.  The other person ends the conversation in frustration by boldly proclaiming, “I have a right to my opinion!”

Sound familiar?  Most of us have probably been in this situation and walked away shaking our heads at the seemingly ignorant responses.  Some of us have likely used that very same line as a way of dodging any further discussion.  Because that’s what remarks like “I have a right to my opinion!” are: a close-ended statement meant to shut down the conversation and get the last word in.  More on this later.  First, let’s start with some definitions.

“Opinion” is defined as, “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.”  This is a very different concept than the concept of facts, yet it’s surprising how many people consider their own opinions iron-clad.  Opinions can range from tastes or preferences, to views about  politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.  However, there is a very big difference between subjective claims, such as tastes in music, art, sports teams, etc., and objective claims; those which carry the weight of empirical evidence.

Professor of Philosophy Patrick Stokes tells his students when they enter his class: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”  He goes on to explain: “The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”

The digital revolution has done much to connect the world, yet it has also done much to divide it as well.  No longer are Americans merely holding opinions different from one another; they’re also holding different “facts”.  For example, arguments are no longer about what we should be doing about climate change, but whether or not climate change is actually happening.  People are now fighting over competing versions of reality.  And now more then ever, it is becoming convenient for some people to live in a world built out of their own facts.  Stephen Colbert has coined this alternate reality as “truthiness” – something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually is.  

This “feeling” of being right has led to this ingrained idea in much of the populous that their views, beliefs, and opinions should be given equal standing in public discourse.  To be clear, no one is suggesting that people cannot hold differing opinions or even speak them publicly.  What I (and Stokes) am saying is that if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth”, then it’s clearly false.

“We don’t respect people’s beliefs, we evaluate their reasons.” – Sam Harris

All too often, when one sees a debate, it is between only two individuals on opposite ends of the issue.  This can give the illusion that both sides of the argument carry equal weight.  This, however, is not always the case.  When it comes to many issues, including climate change, vaccines, or Evolution vs Creationism, there isn’t equal weight on both sides.  There is overwhelming consensus, and then there is the fringe science-denier who feels that the evidence conflicts with their own personal views.  This false equivalence was perfectly explained and demonstrated on an episode of Last Week Tonight dealing with the “controversy” surrounding climate change:

Best line of the video:

Who gives a shit? You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: “Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?” or “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats?”

People’s misconceptions about their own opinions are very often the result of what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effectthe unshakable illusion that you’re much smarter, and more skilled and/or knowledgeable, than you really are.  Far too many people labor under the illusion that their knowledge about things is at least as good as, if not better than, the actual facts. For these people, their knowledge isn’t just superior – it’s superior even to those who have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the subject at hand.  To put it simply – it’s possible to be too dumb to realize you’re dumb.

While everyone is susceptible to having an over-inflated view of their own intelligence, you can see the Dunning-Kruger effect most prevalent in conspiracy theorists, radical political groups, fundamentalist religions, and science-deniers.  Donald Trump supporters are also an excellent example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.  David Dunning himself wrote an excellent op-ed about this phenomenon in Trump supporters and even Trump himself:

“Trump has served up numerous illustrative examples of the effect as he continues his confident audition to be leader of the free world, even as he seems to lack crucial information about the job.”  

“In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable, but perhaps not so worrisome, if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps… Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories, that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.”  

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So what are we do do about this.  Is it possible to have informed opinions without being an expert on the subject(s)?  Yes it is.  But it takes some careful thought, time doing research, an awareness of our own biases and limitations, and a willingness to consider we could be wrong.

Science blogger Fallacy Man came up with a good rule of thumb that is helpful to remember when discussing empirical claims, particularly those made by science – you don’t need to be an expert to accept a consensus, but you do need to be an expert to reject one. In other words, your default position should always be the one held by the majority of experts in that field, especially if it is a very large majority. To be clear, it is always possible that the consensus is wrong. I’m not advocating that you view a consensus as irrefutable proof of a position. Rather, what I am arguing is that you, as a non-expert, should be very, very cautious about claiming that the majority of experts are wrong. To put this another way, how likely do you actually think it is that you figured out something that the majority of experts missed?”  

You don’t need to be a climatologist to accept climate-change, but you do if you’re going to claim it’s a myth.  You don’t need to have a Ph.D in biology to accept evolution, but if you’re going to claim that it’s not true, you better have some serious credentials and evidence to back it up (you listening Ken Ham?).

This really shouldn’t be a difficult concept for people to grasp.  We rely on experts all the time in our day-to-day life, yet somehow there are those who think they know better than scientists and experts when it comes to topics they don’t agree with.  As Fallacy Man puts it, “If we go to several doctors with a problem and all or most of them tell us the same thing, we usually have no trouble accepting their diagnosis, because they’re experts. We defer to expert lawyers, contractors, mechanics, etc. all the time, but for some strange reason, when it comes to science, people suddenly feel empowered to reject the expert consensus and side with some internet quackery instead. This is a very dangerous thing to do. On topics like global climate change where roughly 97% of expert climatologists agree that we are causing it, it seems rather risky to side with the 3% who disagree with the consensus.”  

It never ceases to amaze me how scientifically illiterate people can honestly believe that their opinions carry more weight than that of educated, experienced, professional scientists.  Case in your point:

A few months ago I posted a link to an interview with Lawrence Krauss talking about how the universe can, in fact, come from “nothing” and that no supernatural agency was necessary.  One persons reply was, “Just another viewpoint”.  The implication being, of course, that this person doesn’t agree with Krauss’s position, and her position is equally valid.

No, it’s not.

Said person has no formal, or even informal, training or education in any scientific field.  Krauss, on the other hand, is a renowned theoretical physicist with over 300 scientific publications under his belt.  Her opinion is not equal to his on this subject; not even close.  Ironically enough, Krauss is asked about science being a matter of opinion in this interview:

Nogueira: Do you think there is a misconception that science is a matter of opinion and that we should hear all sides of the story?

Krauss: Yes. As I often like to say, a great thing about science is that one side is usually wrong. There are open questions where there is uncertainty and debate. However, the resolution of these debates is not rhetoric or volume but rather nature. So, if you have an idea that simply disagrees with observation, then you throw it out; there is no discussion. There is no need to debate the question of whether Earth is round or whether it’s flat. There are still people who claim Earth is flat, but they are just simply wrong. Similarly, there are some people who don’t think evolution happens, but they are wrong. And those people who argue against human-induced climate change are also simply wrong.

None of this is to say that you can’t be skeptical about the general consensus or empirical claims.  You should always make every effort to learn as much about a topic as you can, but after you have carefully reviewed all of the evidence, if you have reached a different conclusion than the vast majority of credentialed experts, you should be very trepid and cautious about that conclusion.

Thanks for reading.

 

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