Today seems to be a day to talk about opinions, because I keep reading other people discussing the subject. Yes, I know I’ve talked about this before and recommend reading that for a more detailed analysis. But I’m kinda glad to see that the same idea keeps coming up time and time again: not all opinions are equal or even valid.

Perhaps the most obvious case is the recent comments unearthed from Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) who said:

All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.

You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

Paul, listen to me carefully: there is no scientific data for a young Earth and there cannot be because it is impossible to make predictions for the fickle desires of a capricious creator god who can suspend the rules at will. That isn’t science, it’s pareidolia writ large. You also undercut your claim of there being “scientific evidence” when the reason you give for your belief is “That’s what the Bible says.” I mean, wouldn’t the evidence you claim exists be enough?

As Chris Rodda points out on the Huffington Post, it’s bad enough that this guy is on the Science Committee in the House, but he’s on there with a number of other people from the Congressional Prayer Caucus, a group of congresspeople who consistently reject science in favor of their preferred mythology. Almost a quarter of the Science Committee is composed of people who think that an appropriate use of their time is to try and solve drought problems with mass calls to prayer.

What we need to understand is that people like Broun have very firm opinions on how the world works, but that doesn’t mean we must or even should respect them. Broun’s ideas of how old the Earth is are laughable, and his claims that there is scientific data to support this are simply false.

Ken Ham is not the intellectual equivalent of Richard Dawkins, at least not when it comes to evolutionary biology, and pretending that they both have “opinions” that should be given equal weight does an immediate disservice to Dawkins who spends his time doing real research that actually has some hope of improving the lives of real people and increasing human understanding. Dawkins is engaged in exploring unanswered questions, Ham is engaged in an elaborate and futile debunking attempt because he already knows the answer he wants.

Patrick Stokes recently wrote an article on this subject in which he explains how he tells his students,  “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.”

Far too often we like to hide behind the “opinion” label. I often get into discussions with people who will tell me that they’re just stating their opinion when they make a truth claim, usually when I show them evidence that they are factually wrong.

The thing is, something being an opinion does not make it right, true, or of equal value to evidence. It doesn’t even make it of equal value to other opinions. There are many forms of opinion, most are based on what the holder perceives to be fact, and the only way to measure them is to go to those facts and see how many align with reality as we know it.

Lindy West has a nice rant over at Jezebel today that I think serves as a perfect example where she blasts somebody making the increasingly ridiculous “both sides do it” claim, this time in regards to the culture wars. Specifically he compares the insurance mandate extending to religious institutions to forced ultrasounds. West responds.

Haidt’s two examples are not parallel. In the first, the birth control example, religious conservatives are fighting for the right to make women’s basic healthcare contingent upon adherence to an arbitrary, conservative moral code…

In the second example, regarding trans-vaginal ultrasounds, the liberal argument is also firmly in the corner of civil rights. The conservative argument is…elsewhere (bananaland!). This one is so ludicrous I can’t believe it made it past the pitch meeting, but here’s the gist. Pro tip: Do not stick stuff in people’s vaginas if they don’t want you to. Conservatives aren’t raising liberal hackles because they’re “stepping on sacred values” (as though those values sprang up fully-formed out of nowhere, as though we defend them blindly)—liberals are pissed because conservative lawmakers, in Haidt’s own words, “legislated that doctors would have to harm and degrade their own patients.” Um, YEAH. REASONABLE OBJECTION.

The opinion that one person should follow the tenants of another person’s religion and that parts of their body should be excluded from health care is not the same thing as the opinion that you shouldn’t needlessly stick things in a person in order for them to have a legal medical procedure. These are not the same thing, and pretending that one of these opinions is equally valid ignores everything we espouse regarding individual authority, medical ethics, and the efficacy of preventing abortions through bans and intimidation. In this case, neither of the arguments on the right hold up to scrutiny or meet the objectives they claim to be attempting to meet. One opinion is not just as valid as the other.

Opinions can be fun. It’s good to have them. And often they are entirely subjective. However, once you start treading in the realm of empirical truth, opinions cease being a distracting bit of personal preference, they start having real world consequences, and at that point you can no longer hide behind something being “just your opinion.” If other people’s well being is on the line, such as the case with Rep. Broun, you no longer get to act as if the stories you really like are accurate reflections of reality. Sometimes they may be, but that’s coincidence or observation on the part of the authors. People on the Science Committee need to base their decisions on science and we, as a nation and a species, need to stop pretending that just because somebody believes something, that means we should treat it the same way as somebody who can prove something.


4 thoughts on “Opinionation

  1. Au contraire, ma chere. I do believe everyone has the right to an opinion. However…:

    “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

    Opinion: “Red is a prettier color than blue.”
    Fact: “Red has a longer wavelength than blue.”

    Further, you can apply logic to facts, to understand them better and draw conclusions.

    Opinion: “Red floops are better than blue floops.”
    Fact: “All floops are either red or blue. Bill is a floop. Therefore, Bill must be either red or blue.”

    You are allowed to hold any opinion you want. Opinions, however, are NOT the same thing as facts or logic.

    “Red has a shorter wavelength than blue” is not an opinion. It is simply an incorrect fact.

    “All floops are either red or blue. Bill is a floop. Bill might be yellow” is not an opinion. It is simply faulty logic.

    And neither of those statements become opinions simply because you believe them REEEALLLLYY HARD.

    The problem with the religious right is that many of them lack the basic education (and in some cases, arguably, the intelligence) to understand what the facts are and how they’re come by, or to understand how basic logic works. Because they don’t understand them, they don’t believe they actually exist – which is why they will, with a straight face, present their incorrect facts and faulty logic, and demand that we treat them with the respect due to an actual, honest opinion.

    • I didn’t say people didn’t have a *right* to bad opinions, just that they shouldn’t expect that they will be taken seriously, nor should we take them seriously.

      I agree with you in general, but I think it also highlights how very fuzzy the line between fact and opinion is becoming when people make truth claims that aren’t actually subjective, then hide behind the idea that it’s their opinion. There’s also varying levels of possible truth that can be accomplished. For example, if I say that the US criminal justice system is set up in many cases to be racist, it’s an opinion, but one that has a high possibility of reaching a fact-based verification (looking at arrest rates compared to convictions, mandatory minimum laws, etc.). If I say that the best flavor combination of all time is mint-chocolate, there’s not a whole lot of evidence I can marshal to support that other than to have somebody eat a really good mint-chocolate somethingorother.

      There’s a certain point when something’s provability makes it no longer a candidate for “opinion” or at least one of the low-risk opinions that we can safely disagree on without one of us being potentially dangerously wrong.

  2. Pingback: Details Straight from the Pit of Hell | Reasonable Conversation

  3. Pingback: Voting for Darwin | Reasonable Conversation

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