Culture, Science, Science and Society

No, actually, everyone is NOT entitled to their opinion

The question of opinion is becoming an increasingly vexed issue all over the world, and in all kinds of disciplines.

While no one (well, no one in their right minds) would say that one isn’t entitled to the opinion that purple is a waaaaaay prettier colour than, say, orange, the same is not true when the question is about something with a demonstrable basis in fact.

Like, for example, science.

Today, I came across a fantastic article by Patrick Stokes, Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University in Australia. Titled ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion‘, he writes about the conversation he tries to have each year with his new students, about how, well, they’re not. Or, as he says:

“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.”

Couldn’t agree more.

He then goes on to explain the difference between what Plato first distinguished as opinion (or common belief) and certain knowledge. There’s no point in arguing about the first, which will include such elevated subjects as whether korma is better than vindaloo, or whether or not Led Zeppelin kicks the arse of every single rock band before or since.

The problem, however, is when one gets to believing one is entitled to opinions about the second: actual facts. Knowledge. DATA. Here, anyone is entitled to what they think only if they can back it up.

Otherwise, we get to the situation which has been happening increasingly all over the Western world (I can’t speak for other parts of the world) - amateurs or, worse, people who know _nothing_ about a given subject, feel that their opinion on it is nonetheless just as valid as the opinion of an expert’s.

Sadly, examples abound. Vaccination. Homeopathy. Actually, most ‘alternative’ medicine. Climate change. The list goes on…

And this is where the media often makes the matter worse. In the interests of what they call ‘balance’, they will often put up the opinions of the factually wrong against those of the factually correct, giving both equal airtime and credibility.*

This sort of ‘balance’ should be there for matters of actual opinion - whether her dress at the Emmy’s was better than his, for example.

When it comes to matters where facts and data are required, this type of balance actually becomes bias, and not in favour of the facts. The media needs, desperately, to learn how to distinguish gumpf from truth.  If they can’t learn to do this better, they’ll only further undermine their credibility, and damage the ability of the societies they serve to make educated choices.

Anyway, read the rest of Stoke’s article - it looks at the concept of entitlement, what happened recently in Australia between ABC’s Mediawatch, WIN-TV  and the completely disingenuously named ‘Australian Vaccination Network’, and is well worth the read!


UPDATE: LIke this guy. GOP Congressman Paul Broun, a physician and member of the science committee of the House of freakin’ Representatives! He is most certainly NOT entitled to his ‘opinion’ that evolution, the big bang theory and embryology are ‘lies straight from hell‘, and that the earth is no older than 9,000 years. Why? Because the facts simply do not support that. He’s welcome to believe any insanity he likes, but not to present it as truth, and he most certainly should  NOT then be entitled/allowed to make decisions about anything involving science, technology and so forth…


* The cause of much tearing-out of hair both personally now, and professionally in my previous job at the SMC**.

** Gotta say, kudos to the SMC on their ongoing battle to introduce the press to the idea of real balance when it comes to science - y’all do good work :)

  • Choppa Morph

    The problem is that all formally incontrovertible proofs are based on axioms that can’t be formally proven. So you can argue till you’re blue in the face and never satisfy the ideological sceptic who demands absolute proof.
    What it comes down to is a combination of material empirical demonstrations and serious debate of a principled kind. And more often than not debate will equal struggle or even war.
    So all truth is fundamentally institutional, rooted in people organized in society.
    Which means it has to be fought for and defended in institutional ways, ie using social pressures such as armed force (the queasy might prefer the euphemistic terms ‘laws’ or ‘government’).
    The litmus test here is the understanding of ‘serious’. A frivolous or deliberately obscurantist opponent can’t be talked out of a mistaken position. Rationality won’t bite. Jews, gypsies and socialists will be incinerated if the fascists aren’t removed from power by force.
    So I hope Patrick Stokes adds a few words about institutional clout to his riff on “you’re entitled to what you can argue for”.
    Hegel was well aware of all this as he watched the French Revolution changing the institutional foundations of truth, and he grasped the nettle and accounted for this in his philosophy. The World Spirit and the Spirit of the Age went on to don new socialist personas soon afterwards, however, so ‘serious’ bourgeois philosophy stopped dead with Kant, ie turned into its opposite and became frivolous and obscurantist.
    Which left serious (no quotes) science in bourgeois society groping around in Plato’s cave so to speak.
    An article in Scientific American special issue September 2012 by David Deutsch and Artur Ekert (“Beyond the quantum horizon”) lays the blame for the fumbling confusion entangling the quantum field squarely on “bad philosophy”.
    I’ll leave you with the relevant chunk of the section “Beyond Bad Philosophy”:
    “Erwin Schrödinger, who discovered quantum theory’s defining equation, once warned a lecture audience that what he was about to say might be considered insane. He went on to explain that when his famous equation describes different histories of a particle, those are “not alternatives but all really happen simultaneously.” Eminent scientists going off the rails is not unknown, but this 1933 Nobelist was merely making what should have been a modest claim: that the equation for which he had been awarded the prize was a true description of the facts. Schrödinger felt the need to be defensive not because he had interpreted his equation irrationally but precisely because he had not.
    “How could such an apparently innocuous claim ever have been considered outlandish? It was because the majority of physicists had succumbed to bad philosophy: philosophical doctrines that actively hindered the acquisition of other knowledge. Philosophy and fundamental physics are so closely connected—despite numerous claims to the contrary from both fields—that when the philosophical mainstream took a steep nosedive during the first decades of the 20th century, it dragged parts of physics down with it.
    “The culprits were doctrines such as logical positivism (‘If it’s not verifiable by experiment, it’s meaningless’), instrumentalism (‘If the predictions work, why worry about what brings them about?’) and philosophical relativism (‘Statements can’t be objectively true or false, only legitimized or delegitimized by a particular culture’). The damage was done by what they had in common: denial of realism, the commonsense philosophical position that the physical world exists and that the methods of science can glean knowledge about it.
    “It was in that philosophical atmosphere that physicist Niels Bohr developed an influential interpretation of quantum theory that denied the possibility of speaking of phenomena as existing objectively. One was not permitted to ask what values physical variables had while not being observed (such as halfway through a quantum computation). Physicists who, by the nature of their calling, could not help wanting to ask, tried not to. Most of them went on to train their students not to. The most advanced theory in the most fundamental of the sciences was deemed to be stridently contradicting the very existence of truth, explanation and physical reality.”