From an old but useful piece on how all opinions aren’t created equal, something for us here at The Standard to think about.
Every year Deakin University philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes says something like this to 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.
He points to Plato’s distinction between opinion/belief, and certain knowledge,
… unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it.
So there we have the separation of fact from opinion. But because of the uncertainty it’s not that simple and Stokes then goes on to outline 3 different kinds of opinion.
He argues that while there is no disagreeing with the first one, problems arise when the second and third are treated as if they were the first. For instance we can say that we think that strawberry is better than chocolate, and generally the only way to argue about that is lightheartedly or in jest, where we all know that it’s impossible to really argue the point. But if we say that we feel climate change isn’t real we’ve stepped into a different kind of opinion.
If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial.
But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.
To my mind there are two issues. One is that when it’s a subject that affects many people (e.g. climate change), our opinions on this hold a different degree of gravitas than those about icecream. The risks associated with knowledge at this level are much higher. The other is that our knowledge and opinions about something like climate change should be generated from expertise not personal preference. Our preference of ice-cream isn’t an informed opinion, but our beliefs about climate change should be.
It’s not as black and white obviously, we’ve all just spent years arguing about whether John Key is a good Prime Minister. I would say that many (not all) of the right wing opinions I see here about Key in recent times are ice cream flavour opinions, and I could then make the argument for that being true. I could also make the argument that Key is not a good PM, but I’ve seen credibly constructed arguments that he is a good PM. With which I disagree, but the point being we’re not having an argument about the flavour, instead we are arguing about something that is important and therefore needs to be based on making an informed argument not expressing a taste preference.
Where I suspect I diverge from Stokes’ analysis is that I think we are also in danger where we lose the ability to question technical expertise from a non-professional knowledge base, and where technical expertise is heralded above ethics, values and other ways of knowing. Too often we are faced with Ice-cream Flavour opinion vs Expert opinion, with the each being used to try and displace and marginalise the other. But both can also be used to marginalise the opinions and debate around issues that are important to many people that don’t fall neatly between Ice-cream and Expert. I’d like to see us step out of that dichotomy and apply critical thinking to all our sources of knowledge in order to find the ones that are most useful.
[yes, I did avoid the V word, and would prefer we talked about opinions instead]