You know when you want to reach into a television screen or the pages of a book and slap someone in the face? There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon visits his mother, and it boils my blood. He mentions wanting to teach Evolution and the following exchange takes place:
Sheldon’s mother: Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
Sheldon: Evolution isn’t an opinion, it’s fact.
Sheldon’s mother: And that is your opinion.
Ouch. The issue I have here isn’t with evolution or people who deny it (well, I do sort of take issue with that, but we’ll do that another day). It’s the fact that Sheldon’s mother thinks she is entitled to an opinion about the reality of the world.
The real crime she’s guilty of is not understanding what opinions are for. I suppose we can’t really blame her for ignorance. We can, however, blame her for being stubborn. She should have figured it out by now. Opinions and facts aren’t the same thing. But she’s not alone in muddling them. It’s actually very common and it starts young.
Recently I visited a primary school and did an experiment where we measured which chemical would fizz the most: A, B or C. The pupils all took guesses and it was a three way split. After conducting the experiment it turned out to be C.
Everything was going well until I asked the class: “are we allowed to carry on believing in A or B if the evidence says it’s C?” Rather surprisingly they all said yes, you’re allowed to believe whatever you want, even in the face of evidence.
The explanation they gave sounded pretty solid: “everyone’s allowed to have an opinion and there’s no such thing as a wrong one”.
I completely agree with this statement, but it made me think. Is it a good idea to teach people they can believe whatever they want? I can think of several reasons that might be a bit ridiculous.
I might believe murder is justified. Or that a certain medicine contains poison and I prevent sick people from taking it. Some opinions could lead to significant harm caused to others (if you want depressing proof of that, check out the case of Natalie Rippberger).
Also, if an opinion is something which can’t be right or wrong, it can’t apply to a situation where there is a definite answer. The square root of 64 is always 8. You can’t have an opinion about that. So, I think we need to teach a more realistic message:
An opinion can’t be wrong, but you can’t have an opinion about reality.
Suppose I looked out of my window and saw it was raining. If I say “in my opinion it’s sunny” then we clearly have a problem. It’s not illegal or harmful to say something like that, it just makes no sense. Learning about the truth is a coercive thing, your senses are forced by the way reality is and you don’t get any say in whether you agree or not. You have to agree with reality.
I know we’re told from an early age that our opinion matters, but I wonder if there’s a risk in taking it too far. Nobody’s opinion means diddly-squat when compared to nature. If you’re trying to figure out how the world is (Science), opinions are the things you should try to leave at the door.
You can disagree on what the evidence says but that’s not a matter of opinion, that’s a disagreement which can be settled by finding more and better evidence. How we use Science can be a matter of opinion, the facts of Science are not.
We want children to form opinions independently from their parents. A world where children just believe what their parents believe would be one in which progress never happened. That’s obvious. But I do think we need to be cautious about going too far.
We should tell children their opinions are valid, but they aren’t the ultimate guide on what’s true. If you say something which is factually inaccurate you aren’t really allowed to defend it by saying “that’s my opinion”.
There is of course, a grey area. Socrates argued that opinions were views people had about factual information, without having the full breadth of evidence. And I think he had a bit of a point (as was often the case with Socrates).
A lot of political issues fall into this realm. You might, for example, think there would be less crime in the world if we made alcohol illegal. You might think there would be more financial prosperity if we increased numbers of immigrant workers, you might feel that certain types of movies will lead to a breakdown in social order.
These are statements about fact: numbers of crimes, money coming into a country, amount of public riots etc. But they’re facts which nobody has hard evidence on. The only way to find out whose opinion is correct would be to actually carry out the social change and measure the effect.
The annoying thing is that gathering the evidence can be tricky, costly and daunting. So, many of these arguments never get resolved and remain opinions. Ultimately I think we need to distinguish between opinions, tastes and facts.
Tastes are to do with whether we like something or not.
Tastes are subjective.
Opinions concern reality when there isn’t clear evidence.
Opinions are subjective stances on objective reality.
Facts concern reality when there is clear evidence.
Facts are objective.
Remember, of course, that facts are still only best-explanations until better evidence comes along, making them blur with opinion sometimes, but I would say if there is overwhelming evidence for something and absolutely zero coherent evidence against something, we have the right to call it a fact. For the time being.
I love science, let me tell you why.