Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I have an opinion, hear me roar

Opinion is a word that gets thrown around frequently, and incorrectly, in discussions about religion (and other ideologies, like politics). In the United States, at least, for whatever variety of reasons, no higher status seems possible to extend to an idea than that of opinion. This phenomenon, of course, is nothing short of dangerously ridiculous and sits at the foundation of Isaac Asimov's famous observation that in America an opinion apparently entitles one to roar about it:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural live, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'
I have no desire to attempt to untangle the reasons behind the elevation of opinion in American culture. There are a number of potential causes for it that probably, as Asimov implies, wind back to the prevailing culture in the prerevolutionary colonial times when Europeans first started settling on the American continents. They present quite the Gordian knot for an ambitious and talented historian to tackle: A History of Ignorance in the United States and the Veneration of Opinion. That is certainly a book I would like to read.

What is opinion?

Google defines opinion to mean "a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge." Opinions come in a variety of flavors, then, tucked into the ambiguity of what might be meant by "view or judgment" and, more importantly in the spectrum of meanings contained in the phrase "not necessarily based on fact or knowledge." Indeed, I recognize at least two categories of opinions and at least four categories of something else often wrongly labelled as opinions.

Kinds of opinions

I would argue that the kinds of opinions exist on a spectrum, from less weighty to more, and that there are at least two meaningful categories on this spectrum with a relatively fuzzy boundary in between. Those categories are uninformed opinion and informed opinion, and it is my hardly controversial contention that more informed opinions carry vastly more weight.

Uninformed opinions

These are the kinds of opinions that don't have good justifications behind them, ones that are not based upon very much fact or knowledge. The elevation of uninformed opinions to an equal status with informed opinions is exactly the thread that defines Asimov's "cult of ignorance." Some of these opinions, like that the moon gives off its own (visible) light or that God created the universe just as it is in six literal days less than ten thousand years ago, flatly defy contravening knowledge and are an embarrassment and a threat to our modern civilization. Others of these, like that black people are inherently worse in some way than white people, are another kind of serious threat altogether--while again completely defying the better understanding of the world. These opinions are indefensible.

There are other kinds of uninformed opinions that are enormously dangerous and indefensible, of course. Of note, we might mention the opinion that "alternative" healthcare approaches, like homeopathy, which has no basis in science or in logic, are just as good as conventional, proven medicine. I place these in a separate category because of their wider public acceptance than the outrages listed above, saying that fully aware that a good portion of the population of the United States is racist (and showing it shockingly openly in this year's presidential contest) and that nearly forty percent accept biblical creation as the literal truth. Homeopathic "remedies" are available in nearly every pharmacy and grocery store in the United States; they represent an enormously lucrative industry; and the typical American is as absolutely clueless about this form of obvious quackery as might be possible.

There are not-outrageous opinions as well, which are informed to a variety of degrees. Consider another medical example. A person might be experiencing a variety of health-related symptoms that include shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. Friends or coworkers might be of the opinion that the person is suffering from cardiac issues that are later determined by a cardiologist to merely be stress-induced muscle spasms in the intercostal muscles lining the ribs, ruling out heart problems. Here we see a direct conflict between uninformed and informed opinion, and anyone who has urged someone to consult a doctor about an apparent health issue understands this difference. On the other hand, few suffering from those kinds of symptoms are too likely to accept an uninformed opinion that discourages ruling out the scariest possibilities. Here we clearly see the difference between informed and uninformed opinions. (We might also see them in matters of financial advice, home repair or security, vehicle maintenance, and other matters of consequence that might require an expert's opinion.)

Another good example arises from the recent presidential and vice-presidential debates. Someone can be of the opinion that Vice President Joe Biden strongly won his debate against Representative Paul Ryan or that President Barack Obama came off sleepy and weak against former Governor Mitt Romney in his first debate, but not in his second. One could also be of the opinion that the president was working a serial debate strategy and throwing the first debate intentionally, trying to get his challenger to say a bit more than he should about things he'll struggle with later in the contest. Each of those opinions is very difficult to back with the kind of certainty we often call mathematical (or even scientific), and each can be argued--as has been done incessantly and loudly by just about everyone for the past few weeks.

Notably, considering the first presidential debate, someone that was merely reading the transcript of the debate, might be led to conclude that the president won on substance, even though the general consensus is that he lost that debate, particularly by those who watched him. Other people who watched might conclude that the president won based upon body language, again against the general consensus. All of these ideas have been presented in the media with some argumentation for them. Each represents a different level and sort of being informed, which brings us to a discussion of the informed-opinion category.

Informed opinions

The medical example above, perhaps best, illustrates that we understand that there are informed opinions that are of vastly more worth than their uninformed counterparts. A cardiologist's opinion about what is going on with our hearts is of vastly more worth than is some guy's from the gym (presuming said guy is not a cardiologist or other sort of physician). Here we see the value of experts, which we pretend to value in the United States or place value upon when there is some immediate threat to our person or property.

For some odd reason, though, Americans have a real issue with accepting the informed opinions of people acting outside of their professional setting, and I mean this in two ways. On the one hand, there is the often valid side of this phenomenon where we might not accept a cardiologist's opinion on economics, in which he may be inexpert. On the other hand, there is the less valid side of this phenomenon where the cardiologist at the gym is a guy at the gym because he's not in his lab coat in a hospital. This most often manifests, however, in over or undervaluing the level of education or intelligence held by someone. Smart and well-educated people can be wrong, but if they are studious, careful, and present academic integrity, they are wrong surprisingly less often than they are accused of being wrong.

Two huge arenas in which this arises are cosmology and evolutionary biology (apparently theists are surprised that so many atheists are interested in these subjects, which will be the topic of a future post--relevance to the currently ongoing religion-centered debate being the biggest, most obvious reason). Cosmologists and evolutionary biologists are cracking smart folks working in cracking hard fields. They are immensely qualified experts. Their opinions, and in many cases (particularly in cosmology) these are opinions, are highly informed, and yet somehow completely unqualified people feel as if their opinions are on a level with these folks'.

One important example to note here is the recent claim that "heaven is real" raised by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander after going into a coma from a bout of bacterial meningitis (which neuroscientist Sam Harris absolutely eviscerated). A common claim arising from the desperate is that this accomplished and qualified scientist (no comment on whether or not a surgeon constitutes a scientist any more than a mechanic constitutes an engineer), so his claim must be weighty. All Alexander has here, though, is an informed opinion of what his experience was for him, not that what he experienced is a reflection of some objective reality. He has an informed opinion on how brains are put together, and maybe even to some degree how they work, but as Harris notes, he seems not to be applying what knowledge he does have in this case.

That aside, many infidels have taken the time to be studious, though not professionally expert, in the fields of cosmology and evolutionary biology at an informed-layperson level. Their opinions on these fields are vastly more qualified than are many of the opinions of their detractors, which are more often than not completely unqualified in that they haven't even been informed by studying evolutionary biology or cosmology. On the other hand, many American infidels have spent their lives up to their necks in the theological ramblings that constitute the most significant (by volume, not weight) portion of the uninformed challenges to those fields. In short, those who have studied both fields carefully are more qualified than those who have studied only one, and those who have not studied the sciences, because of their very nature, are essentially unqualified to talk about them.

It is my contention that nearly anyone who grew up in American culture at present is more than qualified to talk about religious tropes because they are so overwhelmingly common--near ubiquity. It isn't even necessary to have this qualification to poop in the shoes of theology, though, because any one even reasonably informed about the scientific method has all the qualifications necessary: theology is not science, end of discussion.

The comparison against Alexander's case is notable here. Alexander's informed opinion about brain phenomena is being challenged by experts who are more trained in understanding brain phenomena than he is. In contrast, a creationist trying to argue against evolutionary biology by pointing to theological claims is not arguing against evolutionary biology on its own turf. Theists who study evolutionary biology honestly and seriously, like Ken Miller, do not argue against evolutionary biology (indeed, Miller is a prominent evolutionary biologist). If Alexander was arguing honestly and seriously from a position of neuroscience, he too would be dismissing his experience as an experience that occurred in his not-dead brain, however that managed to manifest. In other words, Alexander may be informed on some level on neuroscience, perhaps even incredibly informed, and yet he is suspending that to argue from a position of subjective experience (revelation) and theology, and possibly manipulating or misrepresenting the scientific knowledge he has to do so.

In general, though, informed opinions carry vastly more weight than uninformed ones. This is rather obvious, I hope. The hard question remains: how do we surmount the problem presented by people who selectively refuse to recognize this fact?

Before getting on to my categories of non-opinions that pose as opinions, let me address an important aside concerning opinions.

Are you entitled to your opinion?

Writing for the academic Australian website The Conversation, philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes at Deakin University argues "No, you are not entitled to your opinion" in a piece sure to change the thinking of many who read it. His essential argument is that you are only entitled to that which you can argue for, a position which he then goes on to argue convincingly. Opinions you cannot argue for, he claims, carry absolutely no weight. I am in complete agreement with this assessment. 


Not opinions: preferences, lies, facts/theories, and beliefs

Many kinds of ideas are not opinions and yet pose as them. Let me elaborate on four of them.

Preferences

Preferences are very opinion-like. Indeed, they are, in a sense, highly informed opinions, although they are entirely informed subjectively. Unlike opinions, properly, absolutely no objective data needs to exist to define or defend a preference, and so this disqualifies them from being proper opinions. As a result, they are the only kind that people need to respect, de facto.

If you prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream, literally no one has any grounds upon which to challenge that, and this is precisely because the justification is entirely subjective. Perhaps you prefer to take your steak with sauce, or without, or with compound butter, or perhaps you prefer to change between them depending on your mood. Guess what: not only are you not wrong for that, you cannot be wrong for that.

Lies

Lies are not opinions, they are deliberate falsehoods--including skewed statistics and lies of omission. It is not terribly often that I hear claims that outright lies are opinions except in one context. The very loud, very obnoxious cable news circuit, most notably the FOX News network, likes to claim that everything that it says that isn't backed by fact is opinion. One of FOX's taglines, in fact, is "we report, you decide." Lies aren't opinions, though. They're deliberate falsehoods.

Facts and theories

Facts and theories, in the scientific sense of the word, are not opinions either, or if they fall under the loose definition given earlier, they are immensely informed opinions that have literally withstood the challenging questions of many highly qualified challenges. If someone claims that human beings are a species of apes, for example, if it can even be considered an opinion, it is such an overwhelmingly informed opinion that it goes beyond challenge (particularly since grade-school biology curriculum at present really should cover this statement). Importantly, facts and theories are not presented merely by some sort of authority, they openly invite anyone to make the investigation for themselves.

Beliefs

Attention religious people: your beliefs are not opinions, they are beliefs. Some of the statements that come out of your beliefs, like that the world is less than ten thousand years old, may qualify as opinions, but those are very uninformed opinions as they get their information from a source that is literally thousands of years out-of-date scientifically. If you believe in God, that is a fact about you, and your belief that God exists is not an opinion. It is the acceptance of the opinion that a God exists, which is an opinion only informed by the insubstantial reasons of authority, revelation, and tradition. In short, beliefs are constructs that serve as the foundations for opinions, and so those opinions can only be as informed as their foundations. Religious beliefs are remarkably uninformed, and thus opinions arising from religious beliefs are also remarkably uninformed.
 
To close: Does anyone have to respect your opinion?

Just as plainly as Patrick Stokes says that you're only entitled to the opinions you can argue for, you are only entitled to respect for opinions that are respectable. For an opinion to be respectable, at the very least it will have to be both informed and morally defensible.

For example, we are now in a position societally to be able to say with little controversy that absolutely no one has to respect anyone's racist opinions. In fact, we say quite the opposite. Not only is this opinion hugely uninformed, it's morally indefensible. No one needs to respect racist opinions.

The opinion that the application of eugenics could potentially benefit all of humanity may, indeed, be an informed opinion. Intentional selective breeding of animals has produced very successful outcomes for particular working requirements, and as we too are animals, there is absolutely no reason to expect it is different with us. This position, though, has been widely denounced as morally indefensible, rightly so. Even though this opinion is informed, it is not ethical, and thus it deserves no respect, however many times disingenuous theists want to throw this straw man at infidels, as if it is a consequence of rejecting belief in God that we will violate this moral position (or as if it is a consequence of believing in God that eugenics is off the table--Hitler, a theist, was a big fan of the idea).

The opinion that there is a sense of cosmic retribution in the universe, a karma in the sense that the New Agers mean it, is an uninformed opinion that may actually be morally defensible. It does not automatically command respect, though, based upon that moral defensibility because it is uninformed.

Generally, we have absolutely no requirement placed upon us to respect uninformed opinions since they cannot be successfully argued for. This literally disqualifies the entire lot of opinions that arise out of religious beliefs (like the One True Faiths or New Age pantheism and panentheism) from commanding automatic respect. No one needs to respect an opinion that cannot be soundly argued for any more than they need to respect an opinion that is morally indefensible, however sound the arguments for it might be.

You may have an opinion, then, and we may hear you roar, but unless you can back it up morally and factually, expect no one to listen.

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