Fact and opinion are concepts we think of as concrete. Mostly, this is because the only training we have in the matter happens in second grade and only deals with extremes. A more nuanced concept isn't deemed important enough to make part of a core curriculum at schools. That sort of thing is reserved for introductory philosophy courses where people learn what they mistakenly believe they will never use again. Fact versus opinion is actually one of the most important concepts of public discourse that a person can learn if they ever hope to be taken seriously.
Extremely Boring Discussions
The extremes we learn early on are quite boring. Opinion is something that is entirely based on someone's objective experience, while facts are irrefutable truths. "Orange is the best color," is an opinion. "I am wearing a green shirt," is an irrefutable truth although you'll have to trust me on it. I don't remember anyone in my class having any trouble telling the difference between the example facts and opinions that were used. Opinions can't really be argued, and neither can facts. Arguments would stagnate and become very boring indeed. In reality, we use fact and opinion very fluidly. Fact and opinion are essentially two concepts that exist at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Everything we say lies somewhere on the spectrum, but rarely is it completely one side or the other. What is generally accepted as a fact or opinion actually falls closer to the the midpoint. Arguments and debates can not take place when fact and opinion are rigidly used. The interesting discussions happen when we broaden what is acceptable. Opinions are no longer restricted to subjective experiences. They become interpretations of facts and data. Facts are broadened to include things like studies and statistics which are able to be refuted. Most of the problems with how people reason and argue their points stem from misunderstandings about how rigidly defined facts and opinions are.
Your Opinion Can Be Wrong
People frequently invoke opinion as a concept to shield themselves from possible criticisms. They make use of a very liberal interpretation of opinion, and often don't base their conclusion on facts at all. When someone who makes use of facts disagrees with them they pull out their trump card of opinion as a concept. As The Dude would say, "That's just, like, your opinion, man." They don't realize that it doesn't apply after we've expanded our restrictions. They don't realize that because of the expansion that opinions are able to be "proven" or "disproven" through use of facts. While opinions relying on interpretations of facts can never be proven, the facts can be arranged in such a fashion as to create an argument that is more compelling than another argument. The most compelling argument wins. These people want things to work both ways. They want something that is essentially an untrue piece of information to be considered as a very rigid opinion to create a situation where they can say what they like and not be argued with.
My Opinion is Better Than Yours
"Proven" opinions are why the opinions of certain individuals are worth more than others. A doctor's opinion about an illness is probably going to be worth more than a career waitresses. The doctor has more facts to work with along with more experience interpreting them. The waitress is able to have an opinion, but unfortunately that opinion is essentially wrong in this situation. This doesn't make her a bad person, or make her opinions invalid overall. She may have some area of expertise that she is better qualified to give an opinion on than the doctor.
As I've written before, I find that most education is to give people training in how to interpret facts and craft opinions that can be defended. Unfortunately, this isn't sinking in or people aren't making use of it in their daily lives. Not everyone has to research every sentence they say, but they should at least attempt to be able to defend their views against criticism. There is no one more frustrating to be in a class discussion with than the person I've described in this article. Frequently, the only defense they can muster is anecdotal evidence stemming from their own personal experience which only serves to make their lack of perspective more obvious. If an opinion is a song, the facts are the musical notes. They must be arranged to create something that is worth more than the sum of the parts. A song is more than a collection of notes just like an opinion is more than a collection of facts. Songs not based on notes tend not be very popular, but unfortunately this is where the analogy screws up. Opinions not based on facts are very often taken as being just as valid as competing opinions that are based on facts.
The title of this article states, "Your Opinion is Wrong." It's a great title(opinion), but it is a little more forceful than I'd like it to be. More accurately it should read, "Your Opinion Can Be Wrong," but that's less exciting. I would like people to realize that their opinions can be less valid than another person's opinion and that it's okay to change. It doesn't make you look weak if you change your position on something. It's okay to back down in light of new information. Trust me, you'll look like less of a tool than if you had barreled forward despite ever mounting evidence against your claims. This is a lesson that many politicians could benefit from. Backing down in light of new information will actually make you seem smarter and more gracious in the majority of cases. People will see that you actually think critically about your viewpoints and are flexible. They'll feel that you're rewarding to talk to, and that they're in a conversation that means something. Meaningful conversation, I think, is what it's all about.
Written by John Rozewicki
Tuesday, 11 April 2006