You’re just wrong just isn’t right

I’ve just read the thought­ful opin­ion piece No, It’s Not Your Opin­ion. You’re Just Wrong by Jef Rouner at the Hous­ton Press. I don’t find much to dis­agree with in the text of the arti­cle, but there is a sub­text I find trou­bling. While Mr Rouner and I are in agree­ment that assert­ing some­thing as one’s own opin­ion should not used as a shield against log­ic or facts, I’m trou­bled by the impli­ca­tion that any­one has a monop­oly on the truth. Even if Mr Rouner nev­er intend­ed that to be part of his mes­sage, it has been added and/or ampli­fied by many peo­ple who have repost­ed the arti­cle on social media.

Much of this con­flict may come from impre­cise lan­guage, or at least dif­fer­ent assump­tions about the usage of par­tic­u­lar words. My cur­rent thoughts on usage:

Fact is the objec­tive truth inde­pen­dent of any­one’s per­cep­tion or belief. Whether or not there is a rocky plan­et orbit­ing a par­tic­u­lar star in the Androm­e­da galaxy is a fact, whether we can observe it or not. Ulti­mate­ly facts are unknow­able, but in prac­tice we use con­sen­sus of belief (see below) to estab­lish facts.

Belief is an indi­vid­ual under­stand­ing of the facts around us. Each per­son by def­i­n­i­tion assumes that their beliefs cor­re­spond with fact. Also, each per­son wants their beliefs to cor­re­spond to the facts. There­fore, when pre­sent­ed with new evi­dence, a per­son ought to reeval­u­ate their beliefs.1

Opin­ion is a posi­tion or pref­er­ence with­out direct cor­re­la­tion to fact. Moral judg­ments and frame­works, hypothe­ses, as well as things like pref­er­ence for one fla­vor over anoth­er are opin­ions. Unlike facts, opin­ions are direct­ly empir­i­cal­ly know­able, though only because they are ful­ly sub­jec­tive. This is close to the same def­i­n­i­tion that Mr Rouner used, the dif­fer­ence being that he said an opin­ion is not an opin­ion if it is fac­tu­al­ly wrong, but rather an entire­ly dif­fer­ent thing called a mis­con­cep­tion.2

It gets com­pli­cat­ed because we each have beliefs about opin­ions and opin­ions about beliefs, and some opin­ions arise from beliefs. Also, though this is obvi­ous­ly a flawed method, it is nec­es­sary that some (or even most) of our beliefs arise from our opin­ions. It’s impos­si­ble to base all belief on empir­i­cal obser­va­tion with­out dying at a young age and fail­ing to sur­vive as a species. There­fore I will add:

Knowl­edge is an empir­i­cal­ly-derived belief.3 In oth­er words, some­thing learned first­hand by observation.

Assump­tion is an opin­ion which has been upgrad­ed to a belief.

In reg­u­lar speech, peo­ple don’t always stick to strict def­i­n­i­tions, and these usage descrip­tions are, of course, only my opin­ion.4 Of course some­one who says, «it’s only my opin­ion» is not nec­es­sar­i­ly think­ing of the above usage. How­ev­er, it may be use­ful to point out that if it is sup­posed to cor­re­spond to a fact it is not an opin­ion but a belief.

Here Mr Rouner and I part ways slight­ly. Mr Rouner hand­waved the prob­lem of rec­on­cil­ing beliefs by saying,

And yes, some­times sci­en­tif­ic or his­tor­i­cal data is wrong or unclear or in need of fur­ther examination. 

This is true, but lim­it­ing it to sci­en­tif­ic or his­tor­i­cal data avoids the prob­lem: facts are ulti­mate­ly unknow­able. This does not mean that real­i­ty is sub­jec­tive, but each per­son­’s under­stand­ing of real­i­ty is. Due to the lim­i­ta­tions of our sens­es, per­spec­tives, expe­ri­ences, and pos­si­bly indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in the struc­ture of our brains a pri­ori knowl­edge dif­fers from per­son to per­son. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent sets of empir­i­cal­ly-gath­ered infor­ma­tion, and dif­fer­ent sets of opin­ions which inform their beliefs.

This leads to my prob­lem with Mr Rouner’s argu­ment. He makes the dis­tinc­tion between an opin­ion and a mis­con­cep­tion, which nec­es­sar­i­ly rests on the false premise that the objec­tive frame is human­ly know­able. Oth­er than our beliefs, all we have is con­sen­sus. When we don’t have con­sen­sus, we employ argu­ment (such as Socrat­ic dia­logue) to rec­on­cile those differences.

Get­ting to the under­ly­ing dif­fer­ences of belief and opin­ion is hard work, which is why espe­cial­ly on sub­jects that are unim­por­tant at least in the short term, it is valu­able for peo­ple to con­sent not to con­cur.5

All this is to pref­ace what I want to say, which is: I agree, it’s offen­sive for some­one to try to end a con­ver­sa­tion by say­ing some­thing is «just their opin­ion». How­ev­er, isn’t it just as offen­sive (and per­haps more so) to try to end a con­ver­sa­tion by say­ing, «no, you’re just wrong»?

My dis­com­fort with the arti­cle stems from imag­in­ing the con­ver­sa­tion («that’s just my opin­ion», «no, you’re just wrong») played out with more spe­cif­ic language:

«That’s my belief.»

«Your belief is just wrong.»

«That may be. How­ev­er your state­ment that my belief is wrong is an opin­ion — one which you are of course enti­tled to. That opin­ion fails to pro­vide a log­i­cal argu­ment or evi­dence suf­fi­cient­ly com­pelling for me to do so, there­fore I am not going to change my belief at this time. Your opin­ion that my belief is wrong in at best irrel­e­vant to the conversation.

«Sad­ly, the impli­ca­tion of your asser­tion is that I ought to change my belief with­out hear­ing any argu­ment or see­ing new evi­dence. This is an ipse dix­it argu­ment you are employ­ing, oth­er­wise known as the log­i­cal fal­la­cy appeal to author­i­ty. In con­clu­sion, not only do I reject your asser­tion, my opin­ion of your cred­i­bil­i­ty has decreased.»

All that said, it may not be worth the time to try to con­vince some­one else that they are wrong. Above I used the phrase «con­sent not to con­cur.» Walk­ing away and think­ing the oth­er per­son is an idiot is per­haps the tac­it form of con­sent not to concur.

There are more skill­ful ways to han­dle this con­ver­sa­tion. One can and often should tell the oth­er per­son that they are wrong, and no, you don’t have to tell them it’s your opin­ion they are wrong. That goes with­out say­ing.6

While one does not have to lend valid­i­ty to anoth­er per­son­’s beliefs, it is also ill-advised to dis­miss or belit­tle them. First because it is rude, but this is the least impor­tant rea­son. More impor­tant­ly because defen­sive peo­ple are less recep­tive. Final­ly, because it’s wrong. Not moral­ly wrong, but fac­tu­al­ly wrong. His or her beliefs may be wrong, but they are exact­ly as valid as your own, by which I mean their beliefs are derived from their earnest7 attempts to make sense of their own expe­ri­ence. If truth is ulti­mate­ly unknow­able, all sets of beliefs are equal­ly valid.

No, «equally valid» does not mean «equally true»

Do not mis­con­strue this point. I’m not say­ing that all beliefs are equal­ly true. All beliefs are not equal­ly true. I know I used the word valid which many peo­ple believe to be the same as true8, so let me give this its own paragraph:

All beliefs are not equal­ly true.

The point of the con­ver­sa­tion is for both par­ties to arrive at the truth. Though it is pos­si­ble that one par­ty has already arrived at the truth and it only remains for the oth­er to catch up, there may be an ele­ment of the oth­er per­son­’s beliefs you’d pre­vi­ous­ly failed to con­sid­er. Though it may not be worth your time to seek out such points, it’s unsci­en­tif­ic to deny the pos­si­bil­i­ty and there­by fail to lis­ten. If noth­ing else, com­ing to under­stand how the wrong con­clu­sion was reached will help clear up such mis­con­cep­tions in the future.9

Final­ly, I’d like to pro­pose an alter­nate inter­pre­ta­tion to «this is my opin­ion.» When I use that phrase or «this is my belief» (which in com­mon usage is the same thing despite the effort I put into estab­lish­ing the dis­tinc­tion) I intend to invite rather than shield myself from chal­lenges. When I describe some­thing as my belief I mean to acknowl­edge the assump­tions that nec­es­sar­i­ly went in to the con­struc­tion of the belief, and to make clear that I’m not claim­ing empir­i­cal knowl­edge. If I say, «I believe that extrater­res­tri­als have vis­it­ed our plan­et,» it’s because I have not wit­nessed extrater­res­tri­als vis­it­ing our plan­et. It’s because I don’t want you to think that I’ve had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to check the stamps on Mar­vin the Mar­tian’s passport.

…Or even to think that I think that I have.

  1. Yes, one ought to, but in prac­tice often peo­ple’s desire for their beliefs to be true gives rise to an aver­sion to fac­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that those beliefs don’t match facts. 
  2. «If you think vac­cines cause autism you are express­ing some­thing fac­tu­al­ly wrong, not an opin­ion.» (Empha­sis mine.) 
  3. For­mal­ly what I’m call­ing knowl­edge is known as a pos­te­ri­ori knowl­edge. Knowl­edge in that sense includes a pri­ori knowl­edge as well. I’m not using it that way because I’m mak­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of dis­tinc­tion. 
  4. I’m not unaware of the irony. Let’s get this point out of the way: because truth (or fact) is ulti­mate­ly un-know­able, it should be tak­en for grant­ed that any state­ment is a state­ment of opin­ion or belief. It is a bad writ­ers’ habit to dis­claim one’s state­ments by pref­ac­ing them with «I believe» or «in my opin­ion» when those dis­claimers are redun­dant. After all, if it were some­one else’s belief or opin­ion it would be uneth­i­cal not to cite that some­one. 
  5. These words cho­sen for clar­i­ty over the con­fus­ing phrase «agree to dis­agree». 
  6. See foot­note 4, above. 
  7. Even if she or he is lying to you that per­son­’s actu­al beliefs were arrived at through their own expe­ri­ences. There’s not much point in hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion with some­one who is lying to you. 
  8. If you’re hav­ing trou­ble with this, please check with your local dic­tio­nary. «Valid» and «true» will ref­er­ence one anoth­er in most the­saurus­es, but that does­n’t mean the words have exact­ly the same mean­ing. 
  9. It might not apply to you, but the opin­ion piece to which this is a response was pref­aced with com­ments by a teacher com­plain­ing about the use of the «opin­ion defense» by his stu­dents. There is no rea­son to believe that teacher is guilty of this, but any teacher who is not inter­est­ed enough in their stu­dents’ opin­ions to want to know how they arrived at wrong con­clu­sions and help sub­se­quent stu­dents who have the same mis­con­cep­tions has no busi­ness being a teacher. 

One Reply to “You’re just wrong just isn’t right”

  1. Ronald Rea­gan…
    …said, “The trou­ble with our Lib­er­al friends is not that they’re igno­rant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

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