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.
- 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. ↩
- «If you think vaccines cause autism you are expressing something factually wrong, not an opinion.» (Emphasis mine.) ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- These words chosen for clarity over the confusing phrase «agree to disagree». ↩
- See footnote 4, above. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩