I Might Be Wrong

I’m opinionated. It’s an admission, and it’s one that I don’t shy away from. It might be seen as negative in some circles to hold strong opinions, but I feel can also be a strength, with one important caveat: one must be willing to admit they are wrong, if and when the facts contradict their opinions.

I’ve encountered people who, when asked their opinion about a given subject, reply, “Hmm, I’m not sure. I’ve never considered that before.” It’s difficult to be opinionated, if you have no opinions. A person who maintains a strong opinion can only do so if they have previously considered an issue, made a judgment as to their position on that issue, and subsequently formed an opinion. The more considered the issue, the stronger the opinion. As a rule then, the more opinionated you are about an issue, the more informed you are about it. However, there is an important exception to this rule.

Some opinions are based in ideology. Ideological thinking is problematic because ideologies have built in firewalls that enable the formation of very strong opinions – and even beliefs – without sufficient consideration of the totality of facts surrounding an issue. Take politics for example. There are those that believe that the best way to grow an economy is to reduce taxes. In some circles the reduction of taxes, at all times and in all circumstances, is akin to religious dogma. They hold the opinion that tax increases can never be justified. Taxes are always bad; it is incontrovertibly true. So these ideologues may hold strong opinions on taxes, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that their opinions are well informed. Quite the contrary; the ideology they adhere to actually prevents the consideration of alternative views. As such, the ideology has a built in immunity to contrarian views.

So we’ve seen how some strong opinions can be based on careful consideration of factual evidence, while others are held in strict accordance to an ideology. But can it be determined if a strong opinion, or belief, is well informed or simply the product of ideology? Certainly.

Those holding fast to ideological opinions can be identified by a number of distinguishing characteristics. For starters, they are certain their opinions are correct. They give no ground; they are utterly resistant to any evidence that may disprove their notions. They may actively avoid debate, taking offence if their opinions are openly challenged. When asked to justify their opinions they may answer by saying, “I just know it to be true.” If you encounter someone who admits of no possibility that they are wrong and outright dismisses any facts of figures that may rebut their argument they’re probably an ideologue.

In contrast, those with informed opinions rely on verifiable information. If the information available to them changes, the opinions must change. It is not a failing to be wrong. Indeed, being wrong leads to adaption, new concepts and theories. This is how progress is made. Without mistakes, nothing can be learned. That is why those who hold strong, informed opinions are often more likely to revise their thinking in light of new actualities, while those that cling to unfounded ideology stagnate. It is possible to be opinionated, why reserving the right to be wrong. Those with informed opinions are not likely to be perfectly certain; instead they my make reference to plausibility and probability. For example, I believe that god probably doesn’t exist; however I’m not perfectly certain, I just find it highly improbable.

My personal opinions are based on information. I admit that the information available to me isn’t perfect, nor is it unchanging. I might be wrong to incorporate the latest findings of string theorists or paleobotanists into my held opinions; however, the likelihood of my informed opinions being preferable to strictly ideological opinions is high. I might be wrong, but no matter, an opinion worth having is an opinion worth defending.

A Son’s Reflection

It’s a week before mother’s day. Once again I find myself in the greeting card aisle at the drug store gazing listlessly at the huge selection of mother’s day cards on offer by our friends at Hallmark. There are elegant cards with floral patterns; there are cards that play music when you open them; there are cards that virtually drip with sappy sentiments. The choices are numerous, and yet I can’t find a single card that says something real. I need a card that speaks truthfully. I need a card that says ‘I love you and appreciate you’ without making depicting my mother as a saint.

I don’t know what your mother was like, but my mother was a real person. She was fallible; she made mistakes, and plenty of them. Sending a card that says, “You’re the best mom ever and you were always there for me,” is bullshit. It’s not going to fly. I’m left wondering why I do this every year. After all, it’s not like I don’t talk to my mom all the time. She knows how I feel, right?

As I leaf through the cards one by one, I begin wondering who actually grew up with a mother who could honestly live up to all this drivel. Are there really people out there with Hallmark mothers? If so, mother’s day must be easy for them. They probably don’t even bother opening the cards to read the messages inside. They simply walk down the aisle, pick the first card that catches their eye without breaking stride, assured that no matter the praise being doled out their mother would be deserving of it. Oh how I envy those people. I imagine how they must look: handsome young men, strong and cultivated, and beautiful young women with manicured nails and perfect hair. Flawless in every way, due to their superior genes and ascribed status. Already on their way to becoming perfect progenitors themselves, their children ride in luxury in the back of shiny black Range Rovers.

Maybe I can find a humorous card. Those are usually pretty safe. Something about scratch and sniff underwear maybe. Is that too crass? Probably. Maybe a blank card instead. Yes, that’ll work. I’ll write my own message this year.

I decide a on card with a cute puppy on the outside and a blank interior. When I get home I find a pen and scribble out a message:

Dear Mom, Happy Mother’s Day! I hope you have a great one! Here’s a gift card for the bookstore. I know you can never have too many books, right? I look forward to seeing you this summer. Until then, lot’s of love, Jesse.

Happy with my safe little message, I place the card in an envelope, attach a stamp and then walk to the mailbox down at the end of the block. When I get there I double check the address and pop the envelope into the box. To be safe I open the slot again to ensure that my letter has dropped down into the bin. As I turn to walk back home I think about how silly it is that I do this every time I mail a letter. I ask myself,  “Where did I ever learn to do that?” Suddenly I remember why I send a card in the first place. Maybe next year my card will say something more meaningful.

The Influence of Books

The Influence of Books

I’m influenced by books, and if you read, so are you. One cannot help but be shaped and even transformed by the books they read. Books are formidable tools in maintaining cultural ideologies, and on occasion they challenge the very culture they spring from. Books are entertaining and informative. At their best they challenge our imaginations. At their worst they aggravate and anger us. Books are revered. They are an avatar of free speech and they embody our natural right to share and communicate with each other. No wonder then that when a book is banned, it conjures up a deep sense of moral outrage. As lovers of books, we must stand up to protect them, even if we disagree with the contents within them. Books are precious. Books have value. They reflect the totality of the human experience, some more eloquently than others. Books change us. Books guide us. Some are considered holy. Some are considered evil; they are burned. No matter what you think of books, you can’t help but be influenced by them — and so am I.

Read my readings page to see how.

Mandatory Optimism

You can fake a smile. You can fake a laugh. You can even fake an orgasm; just ask Meg Ryan. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which she faked an orgasm with such gusto it virtually cemented her place in popular culture.

Western culture has a love-hate relationship with faking it. On one hand we are told to “fake it until we make it.” On the other hand we are told, “be real; be true to yourself.” Despite the contradiction, it is generally agreed that happiness and optimism are desirable traits. If you’re not positive, if you’re not an optimist, there must be something wrong with you.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. To lack enthusiasm is to risk being ostracized by your co-workers. Worse, a soporific demeanor can seriously limit your opportunities for career advancement. If you want to move up the ladder, you had better learn how to turn that frown upside down. The rewards of a cheery, optimistic attitude are clear. Researchers Ron Kaniel, Cade Massey and David T. Robinson studied the effect of an optimistic disposition on MBA students’ job searches and then promotions. They found that optimistic people were more likely to have higher starting salaries and were more likely to be promoted within their first two years on the job. Even those people who were less naturally optimistic could benefit by pretending to be. Walking around the office with a smile on your face and a skip in your step might be the best way to get a raise, or even that corner office everyone is vying for.

The media reinforces excitement as the penultimate human emotion. Public figures feigning – or at the very least exaggerating – excitement are front and centre in the popular press. A professional athlete touts his excitement at being traded to a small-market team; a CEO in a black turtleneck talks about how thrilled he is to announce a new, smaller MP3 player; a Hollywood actress declares her pleasure working with “such a talented cast.” Everyone is smiling. Everyone is thinking positively.

Is there no place in this world for pessimism? Does being excited and enthusiastic make us better workers, better spouses, and better human beings? Science might have the answer. Psychologists are beginning to challenge the idea that optimism is the ideal state of mind; however suggesting that pessimism might serve an important function is almost heresy in a culture obsessed by optimism. “In America, optimism has become almost like a cult,” says Aaron Sackett, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. To be labeled a pessimist is to risk being alienated and marginalized by co-workers. However, new research suggests that a balance between optimistic and pessimistic thinking may offer a more effective means of making smart decisions.  In her article The Uses and Abuses of Optimism and Pessimism, author Annie Murphy Paul says:

Successful people often employ pessimism in a strategic way to motivate and prepare themselves for the future. It’s simply not the case that optimism is “good” and pessimism is “bad”—although that’s how we’ve been encouraged to think about them. Rather, both are functional. And both have value.

Pessimism is an important counterbalance to optimism. The drawback of suppressing it is well exampled by the great recession of 2008. In a culture that celebrates the excitement of optimism, and all things delightful, who in their right mind would dare risk dissention? Anyone brave enough to question the wisdom of sub-prime mortgages, faced the prospect of being labeled a pessimist, a worrywart or even a fear monger.

Despite the proven benefits of balanced thinking, public perception is hard to change. Excitement and positive thinking are virtually mandatory in modern society. It’s no wonder that people try so hard to appear positive; they are motivated by the attainment of happiness, but as William Bennett noted: “Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.”

Society propagates an illusion that is both unhealthy and dangerous when it limits peoples’ ability to speak truthfully. Allowing for the possibility that bad things really do happen, and that life isn’t a perpetual amusement park ride, we need to allow people the freedom to acknowledge it. Sometimes your job sucks. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes life is tedious. Life is made up of highs and lows, but if we whitewash the world with unrealistic optimism and feigned enthusiasm, we risk losing touch with what makes life worth living: genuine happiness.

Reason, Religion & Faith

Critics of religion often succumb to the same flawed thinking as those they oppose: moral absolutism. It’s not uncommon to hear even moderate atheists and agnostics blaming religion for the many wars and atrocities that fill the pages of history. Many so-called ‘new atheists’ see religion as a wholly bad thing, with no redeeming qualities. To them, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are of particular distain.  Religion’s malevolence, they say, is absolute. However, by taking an absolutist position, so-called neoatheists are simply following in the very same footsteps as the dogmatic and fanatical zealots they regularly berate.

While there are certainly problems with religion, it’s unreasonable to ignore the benefits it has afforded humanity. Without doubt many good deeds have been done in the name of religion. Religion provides strong communal connections amongst its adherents.  Religion also provides believers with security and continuity in their lives through traditional practices and rituals. Science has affirmed the benefits of religious practices; prayer and meditation help lower blood pressure and reduce harmful stress hormones. A myriad of advantages are imparted by religion and it’s fallacious to paint all religious practice as detrimental. Unfortunately, religion has an achilles’ heel: faith.

Faith is commonly defined as “belief that is not based on empirical proof.” Although people often use the word faith interchangeably with words like belief and trust, the faith that I refer to is religious faith. I am in no way saying that trust or belief (within reason) is undesirable.  Trust, as Immanuel Kant reasoned, is paramount to the functioning of society. Faith in your loved ones, or faith that the sun will rise tomorrow is very much unlike religious faith.  When one has faith that the sun will rise in the morning, that faith is based on predictable and testable events. Religious faith is independent of empiricism; it is unfalsifiable and is not dependent on proofs. In order to have faith in the religious sense, reason must be dismissed or, at the very least, diminished. Faith therefore by its very nature is unreasonable.

Religious faith is a learned ability. Small children naturally require proof when a claim is made. This is exampled on playgrounds everywhere with children imploring their playmates to “prove it.” Children are generally apt to forgo observable proofs in lieu of authoritative testimony – at least temporarily. Eventually children get wise to the authority figure who makes claims about the world that cannot be proven. However, Christianity and other religions verily celebrate the ability to believe a thing even when evidence for it is either lacking or contrary to the held belief. Indeed, the greater the lack of proof, the greater the faith. The bible illustrates this point:  “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” – John 20:29

If someone holds a strong belief based on faith, no amount of reasoning or evidence can dispel it. In fact, the faithful should be able to withstand any bombardment of facts and proofs. This ability to deny any evidence that runs counter to their thinking is greatly admired amongst the faithful. So what’s the problem with resistance to facts? Simply put, people do not generally agree on matters of faith. Asides matters of faith, people are apt to disagree on almost every aspect of life. Faith interferes with the resolution of arguments and disputes. In secular society, disagreements can be resolved – to a degree – through appeal to reason. Logical arguments and empirical proofs are useful tools in resolving disputes when the facts are up for debate; however, if a disagreement hinges on an article of faith it can never be resolved since faith is incontrovertible. Faith promotes entrenched thinking that ignores facts about the world and instead upholds dogma.

Religion certainly has its redeeming qualities, but when paired with religious faith, it becomes a serious impediment towards peaceful coexistence and human progress. Admittedly, faith can – and does – motivate good deeds, but faith is not the only means by which to inspire philanthropy. In fact, the most philanthropic countries are the least religious.

Humanity would be well served in ceasing to celebrate religious faith. Instead, humanity should be using its unique capacity for reason and logic in the effort to promote human flourishing. Only when reason overcomes blind faith, can humanity ever hope to achieve its full potential.

You Don’t Care, Right?

Democracy has a critical weakness. Its success depends on active participation by its members. When apathy rules amongst the proletariat masses, democracy boils down to oligarchy. Tell that to the average Joe and he’ll shrug his shoulders, take another swig of beer, and ask, “So what?” As frustrating as that response can be for those of us that care about democratic process and social justice, it’s not all that surprising that most people just don’t give a hoot. In 2011, CBC reported that nearly 40% of Canadians didn’t bother to cast a vote in the federal election – an election that would determine the leadership of the country. Admittedly it is hard to pinpoint the cause of low voter turnout. Apathy might be to blame, but cynicism is almost certainly a contributing factor.

South of the border, the California Voter Foundation conducted a poll in an attempt to understand the phenomenon. They asked eligible voters why they had not cast a ballot. 24% of respondents cited being “too busy” as their reason for not voting. There are lots of other reasons people give for not voting. Not being sufficiently informed on the candidates’ policies, dislike of the choices, disbelief that their vote really counts: these are all reasons to stay home.

It may be unfair to say that people just don’t care. When asked about the importance of voting nearly 98% of people living in democracies will agree that voter participation is crucial. However, those sentiments dissipate like a fart in the wind when it comes time for voters to act on their convictions.

The problem of apathy goes well beyond the voting booths. Apathy exists in high levels on nearly every topic of social justice and policy. If you ask people about the environment, homelessness, health care or education, most will say they care about the issues. Unfortunately, the general public is woefully uninformed about existing governmental policies aiming to address these issues. Can we ever expect people to care about issues they know little or nothing about? We need only go ‘Jay Walking’ to see how little the general public knows about anything other than pop culture and consumerism. Canadians like to think of themselves informed and socially – if not politically – active, but the truth is Canadians are about as apathetic as many Americans. Again, so what?

Regrettably, the apathetic public unknowingly cedes control over its own destiny by abdicating its responsibilities to those who may not have their best interests at heart. The average Joe might be unconcerned about the political and social system in which he lives, but it would be foolish to assume the safety of letting others make decisions for him. Where the public cedes control, corporations and other special interest groups step in. No doubt, apathy is a known commodity – and a valuable one at that – for the parties interested in deciding the rules of the game.

The adage, ‘you get the government you deserve’, may be truer today than at any time before. At a time when lobbyists and powerful corporate concerns influence government like never before, it is vital for citizens to remember their responsibility to themselves and future generations. That responsibility includes active participation in society, not merely as a consumer, but as an active citizen.  Living in a democracy comes with the duty of contribution and involvement. The power to impose policy cannot, and should not, be ceded to a select few.  Lethargy is poison to democracy; it pollutes the lifeblood of self-determinacy. But you don’t care, right? No problem; there are a few that do. They’ll be deciding your future. Will you let them?

All Opinions Being Equal

As Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) said, “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.” He was right; you don’t have to look far to find opinions on virtually every topic from atheism to vegetarianism. Television, magazines, books, blogs and YouTube videos serve to promulgate opinions. With such a cornucopia of convictions, you can now live your entire life without ever being forced to listen to opinions you don’t agree with. If confronted by an opinion you don’t like, just change the channel or revise your search. Avoid the uncomfortable circumstance of having your opinions challenged, or worse yet, proven wrong. Simply find someone who shares your viewpoints and revel in the reaffirmations they provide. If you’re conservative, Fox News will satiate your desire to see liberals berated. Lefty? No problem, MSNBC is just a click away. Maybe you’re a believer of intelligent design. With a quick search on YouTube you can learn about how silly the theory of evolution is.  And what’s the harm; tolerance is good right? Should we not accept, and even celebrate, the diversity of opinions within our culture?

To answer that question, it is helpful to examine the nature of opinions and to understand the differences between personal opinions and informed opinions. A personal opinion is subjective. For example, if one woman loves chocolate ice cream, she might believe it to be the best flavour; however another woman may disagree with that opinion, instead preferring vanilla. Opinions of this variety might be thought of as personal preferences. It would be silly to argue that one opinion about the best ice cream is any better than the next. In this regard, all opinions that reflect personal preference are equally valid.

Not all opinions relate to personal preferences. Some opinions reference certain facts about the world. These facts are not subjective, but objective. It is true that some facts are verifiable and demonstrable, independently of what we may think about them. Unlike the opinions about ice cream, which relate to personal inclinations, opinions about the objective world can be right or wrong; therefore some opinions are valid while others are invalid. As author Douglas Adams said, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.” Where it was once a common opinion that the world was flat, we now know that the world is spherical. Even though many people once held that false belief, the truth was independent of those beliefs.

Surely we can celebrate the diversity of opinions as they relate to personal inclinations, but invalid opinions about the objective world can range from faintly foolish to decidedly deleterious. If, for example, a person holds the opinion that aliens are responsible for the assassination of JFK, that opinion is not likely to cause serious harm to anybody, save the holder. At most, that person may face certain social disadvantages from those that disagree with that person’s extravagant claims. However other invalid opinions can lead to real harm. Recently, a colleague of mine suggested that scientific findings about global warming were merely opinions. This statement troubled me. It smacked of a relativistic worldview that effectively negates any path to objectivity. While I agree that my personal view on global warming is an opinion, I would argue that it is an informed opinion. Whether or not it is true, is independent of what I think about it. It is not a personal, subjective opinion. It is an objective opinion based on certain empirical facts about the world. Whereas believing in aliens may be largely innocuous, believing that global warming is not caused by human activity can lead to actions that are detrimental to the long-term health of the environment. If enough people held that opinion, the path towards disastrous climate change would become a four-lane highway.

So how do we decide whose opinions to accept and whose to reject? While the answer to that question may be best left to professional philosophers, a simple decision procedure for qualifying the validity of an opinion can be adopted by any rational being. Hence, when forming opinions or evaluating the opinions of others it is advisable to begin by asking yourself whether the opinion in question can be verified through direct observation or by rational argument. If the opinion, which is based on a set of premises or claims, cannot be directly tested, it may be necessary to accept proofs provided by others – i.e. expert testimony. When appealing to the testimony of another, it is necessary to evaluate the expertise or authority of the other. In addition, it is vital to consider number of other experts that support the claim, the possible motives for supporting the claim and the means by which the claim was advanced.

Clearly, not all opinions are equal. The advice of a medical doctor is more valuable to a cancer patient than the advice of a self-help guru who suggests, “Chemotherapy is not needed. It’s mind over matter.” Unfortunately the general public has been caught up in the politicizing of ideas and even scientific facts are now up for debate. Opinions that are supported by rational argument and empirical evidence, opinions that are tested and verified over and over cease to be opinions – they are accepted as fact. But when any fact can be disavowed, when any fact can be dismissed, when any fact can be discredited without appeal to evidence, we are only left with our opinions; unfortunately our opinions are notoriously biased and uninformed.