You know when you want to reach into a television screen or the pages of a book and slap someone in the face? Of course you do. You're filled with ontological rage just like everybody else. Well, that happened to me recently when I caught a few moments of The Big Bang Theory. In this particular episode, Sheldon visits his mother and mentions Evolution . 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.
The issue I have isn’t with evolution or people who deny it (well, I do take issue with that but that's a battle for another day). It’s the fact that Sheldon’s mother thinks she is entitled to an opinion about the reality of the natural world. The crime she’s guilty of is not understanding what opinions are for.
We can’t really blame her for being ignorant about evolution. Evolution is often poorly taught and many are oblivious to what it says. What concerns me more is a fundamental confusion she is showing about when an opinion is required. But it turns out, she's not alone. We teach the difference between fact and opinion in schools, but rarely do we teach children when to use them.
Out of the mouths of babes
Recently I visited a primary school and did an experiment where we measured which chemical would fizz the most in a given reaction: 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: “So, are we allowed to carry on believing A or B if the evidence says it’s C?” Rather surprisingly they all said yes. I was puzzled so I asked them to explain why they were saying that. The reason they gave was something they were clearly proud of: “everyone’s allowed to have an opinion and there’s no such thing as a wrong one”.
That's definitely true. Opinions, by definition, are subjective and you are entitled to any. But it would seem the mantra of valid opinions has come to mean "everybody can believe whatever they want, even in the face of contrary evidence."
It really got me thinking. Is it a good idea to teach people they can believe whatever they want? I might believe murder is justified. Or that a certain medicine contains poison and I prevent sick people from taking it. Or that it's OK to torture animals. Some opinions could lead to significant harm 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, then surely it can’t apply to a situation where there is a right and wrong answer. The square root of 64 is always 8. You can’t have an opinion about that and say it's 15. 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. Truth isn't a democracy.
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 what nature is actually doing. If you’re trying to figure out how the world is (Science) then opinions are the things you should 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 better evidence. How we use Science can be a matter of opinion, the facts of Science however, are not.
Obviously, we want children to form opinions independently from their parents. A world where children believe what their parents believe would be one in which progress never happened. But I do think we need to be cautious.
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 allowed to defend it by saying “that’s my opinion”.
There is of course, a grey area which I ought to mention briefly. Socrates argued that opinions were views people had about factual information without possessing 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 territory. 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 carry out the social change and measure the effect.
The annoying thing is that gathering evidence like that can be tricky, costly and daunting. So, many of these arguments never get resolved. So perhaps we could distinguish between facts and opinions by introducing the word "taste" into the debate, as folows:
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.
I'm not sure I like that trichotomy, but hopefully it makes my point clear.
NB: As I pointed out in an earlier blog, facts are "best-explanations" until challenging evidence comes along so I guess they can blur with opinion sometimes. But I would argue that if there is overwhelming evidence for something and absolutely zero evidence against something, we have the right to call it a fact. For the time being at least. We certainly can't outright replace the claim with an un-evidenced alternative and call it "an opinion". Opinions are wildly overrated.
I love science, let me tell you why.