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.