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.

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.

The Massive Audience Theory

I was watching the History Channel. As is often the case, the program centred on a WWII theme — something about the rise of Hitler — and I found myself marvelling at the power of massive audiences. Let me explain. In the case of Hitler, I believe his greatest strength was his ability to stir up a crowd. The larger his audience, the more powerful he became. Unfortunately, Hitler put his great oratory powers to nefarious use. However, I started to wonder if all political power stems from the ability to broadcast messages. It got me thinking about how our collective worldview has been shaped and how our culture seems to be rooted in the ideas, discoveries and opinions of a relatively few people. Notwithstanding, there have been many influential people that spread their memes by other means, such as printed word, art, song or motion picture.

This blog will explore the notion that massive audiences are the source of all philosophical, religious, cultural and political change. These massive audiences are tapped by people who, either by talent or circumstance, gain access to the attention of vast numbers of people. I posit that the impact any individual person can expect to make in his or her life is directly correlated with the number of people he or she can gain audience with. If you speak to one person, you may affect that person’s life. If you speak to millions, your impact logically increases. Therefore audience building is of paramount importance to an individual who wishes to affect change.

Admittedly, there are parts of my theory that are obvious and intuitively self-evident; however, I plan to explore this theory and develop it as a framework for my writings on other subjects. I hope that this blog will become a place where rational and considered views are expressed and debated. Let’s get started.