On Not Being Entitled To One’s Opinion

Opinion-cartoon

Have you ever had a conversation with someone or were even engaged in a full out debate and then they say  “everyone is entitled to their opinion“?  Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close, even though usually it ends the conversation because who can argue with that? Or can you?

Knowing how to effectively debate and formulate a statement to argue for or against something is really an art and crucial in effective public discourse.

A whole lot of people mistake having an opinion on something based on subjective criteria with facts that are true no  matter what your opinion is on them.

2 + 2 = 4. That’s a fact. It is not 5 or 8 or 1, it is 4. I cannot insist it is 5 and then end the conversation by stating that “well, everyone is entitled to their opinion“. That’s nonsense, because 2 + 2 being 4 is not a matter of opinion, but a fact. And you or anyone accepting that fact or not, has no bearing on it being 4. You  can deny it as much as you want, it will still be 4.

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Let’s try another example: You can say you do not believe in gravity, but fact is that gravity is a fact of your existence on this planet and you feel it every time you move around.  You can express in however which ways you desire that you do not believe that gravity is real, but that doesn’t make your claim true or entitles you to it, even though it has been proven false. Or especially because it has been proven false.

What is an opinion, however,  is that chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla or that red is a nicer color than blue. I really cannot argue with that. 

Knowing how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible, is key to any effective debate. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – so continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. This attitude feeds into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Mistaking Free Speech With Opinions

Without the appropriate qualifications and experience, people who pose as experts are not entitled to have their opinions respected.

A lot of the climate change debates, for example, and their respective opinions are held by people who do not have the education and training and thus expertise to intelligently comment on climate change.

What the scientific community has to say is often subdued by the personal, subjective, often false opinions of amateurs who are not climate scientists. You suddenly have political pundits with no background in any of the sciences involved with researching climate change, commenting on the scientific and technical aspects of it, expecting their “opinion” to be respected just as much as the facts the scientist presents.

When people get sick, they don’t go to lawyers, they go to doctors. So why are we going to lawyers and MBAs for questions that can only be answered by scientists who posses the education, expertise and skills to intelligently and factually answer questions that pertain to climate change.

Common Belief (Doxa) and Certain Knowledge Are Two Different Things

Unlike “2+2=4” (certain knowledge), an opinion (doxa) has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it.

Opinions can range from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

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While no one can really argue with an opinion with its degree of subjectivity (the chocolate ice cream example) – in which case “you are indeed entitled to your opinion“, there is – however – a right and wrong answer when it comes to the sciences, law, mathematics and questions of a technical nature.  In that regard, an amateur is not entitled to disagree with a biologist  and have their views “respected” – as if they were both equally valid.

The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions grounded in technical, legal, scientific and physical disciplines to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. As if 2 + 2 was a matter of opinion; as if evolution was a matter of opinion; as if the structure of the DNA was a matter of personal opinion the same way ones like or dislike for a flavor of ice cream is.

Or, conversely,  as if one’s belief in something, such as 2 + 2 being 5 made it real or true and they would eventually become 5 if only you believe in it hard enough.

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That is certainly one reason why religious people often think they’re entitled to disagree with scientific facts pertaining to evolution and the origins of human life and this planet. “You are entitled to believe in evolution and I am entitled to believe in creationism“. As if evolution was a matter of personal opinion, like religion, or as if believing in creationism was as perfectly valid view to hold when it comes to the question of the origins of life.

In fact, even the term “believing in evolution” is false since belief  – as in faith, as in “a matter of personal opinion” – has nothing to do with it. Evolution is real, it is fact, whether you believe in it or not is irrelevant.

You Can Say Whatever You Want, Just Don’t Expect Me to Accept It

If “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people from saying or uttering whatever they want, then the statement is true. But so what? No one can stop you saying that a woman was created from Adam’s rib or that pink elephants can fly or that 2 + 2 is indeed 5. Say it as much as you like.

But if “entitled to an opinion” means entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred and forgotten altogether.

As someone put itThere’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’.” 

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All too often in debates, especially in the commenting section of online news and blog outlets, I run into people eventually pulling the “we are all entitled to our opinions” card – usually when the discussion is going in a direction they do not like and when their arguments become increasingly more indefensible.

It is entirely valid to utterly dismiss erroneous and simply wrong information that has a life of its own such as the vomit-chunk, utter stupidity that comes out of the mouth of anti evolutionists and proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design. Beliefs that continue to harm society in many ways.

The point is that we are all free to bring forth information but once it is proven to be invalid it is no longer an opinion but rather a misconception.

Once your perspective is proven false it is time to stop repeating it and insisting on it.

The consequences of continuing with the lies –  as far as this nation is concerned – is the decline of knowledge and education in favor of teaching children proven falsehoods under some “everyone is entitled to their opinion” mantra, which – as has been laid out – is not true.

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When the Pope, the spiritual leader of millions of Catholics, goes up there and tells people in impoverished areas ravaged by devastating communicable diseases such as HIV to not use contraceptives of any kind based on some pesky old book of unvalidated garbage, then the consequences are beyond devastating. In that regard the Pope is not entitled to his opinion which he then chooses to spread like venom around the world, costing people their lives.

So entitled to your own opinion? Sure, when it comes to personal tastes and flavors and how you wanna decorate your room or what type of governance you prefer, not when it comes to facts. In that case, you are merely entitled to uttering whatever misinformation you like, just don’t expect anyone to respect it as valid and much less as true.

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