08 October 2012


Whoa, there's a bold statement in a nation founded upon, among other principles, free speech. Allow me to clarify.  Whether in public debate or private discussion over a topic of controversy, there are (a) opinions based on evidence, and there are (b) opinions based on feelings or beliefs.  The former have a legitimate place in our discourse, since they are substantiated.  The latter can lay no claim to legitimacy, since they reflect personal bias unrelated to fact.

The next time you hear someone (including yourself) say, "I'm entitled to my opinion", ask which kind of opinion is being defended ~ one based on evidence, or one based on belief.  Even more fundamentally, ask what the assertion truly means.  If it means no one can stop you from thinking or concluding what you wish, that's superficially true, but also of little value.  If it means your views should be treated as valid, regardless of a lack of evidence to support them, that is clearly not true.  For many centuries, common opinion held that the earth was flat.  That didn't make it so.

Opinions come in several flavors ~ public opinion, scientific opinion, judicial opinion, and editorial opinion.  In each flavor, it is paramount that any conclusion be based on sound, persuasive evidence.  Opinions may change over time, as our understanding of issues or events clarifies.  But the requirement for evidence holds.

So if your opinion regards a question of personal taste or prejudice, you can certainly entertain it within your own mind.  What you cannot do (within the bounds of discourse with others) is advance that opinion as if it carried any persuasive weight.  It does not.

If, on the other hand, your opinion regards a political, scientific, or legal issue, then it carries persuasive weight only if it is supported by legitimate evidence founded in expert application of relevant facts.  If your opinion is unsupported, then no, you do not have the right to claim it as a substitute for truth.

I offer for your consideration a brief article by philosopher Patrick Stokes, on this very subject.  The writer has a wry sense of humor, and several penetrating insights into the nature of opinions and their expression.  The art of rhetoric is founded on the philosophical principles of logical reasoning, and the detection of fallacies.  If more people, most especially more politicians, adhered to these principles, ours would be a saner and safer world.

As Harlan Ellison observed, "You are not entitled to your opinion.  You are entitled to your informed opinion.  No one is entitled to be ignorant."

No comments:

Post a Comment