Why Not All Opinions Are Valid — The ‘Other Side’ Can Be Dumb
Opinion is not the same thing as informed opinion
Last week, the Medium Daily Digest that dropped into my inbox contained a link to an article called “The ‘Other Side’ Is Not Dumb.” This article’s central thesis is well-intended and important, calling on us to reject “intellectual laziness” and to think more before we judge others and reject their arguments. This undeniably good advice has resonated with Medium readers who have lavished over 52,000 claps on the article.
That said, among the good advice the article also contains a very troubling instruction. It states that all of us should “enter every issue with the very real possibility that we might be wrong this time” (original emphasis). For an article that is trying to counter “intellectual laziness,” this is a surprising recommendation because it’s poor advice if we are genuinely interested in intellectual integrity.
It’s poor advice because there are plenty of issues that are not simply worthy of debate.
Rejecting the post-modern idea that there is no such thing as reliable knowledge and that all truths are subjective, I know many things to be true. Here are three simple examples: there is no link between “race” and intelligence, a rape survivor is never responsible for being raped, and the massively accelerated rate of climate change we are experiencing is caused by human activities.
I know these things to be true because there is absolutely no serious, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that proves that there is a link between “race” and intelligence. It is self-evident that only rapists are responsible for rape. There is, and has been for some time now, overwhelming peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support the assertion that current and predicted levels of climate change are human-induced.
I do not debate these and numerous other issues and, therefore, will not enter every discussion with the notion that I could be wrong. I don’t think you should either. The fallacy of the proposition that we should do so is founded on the naïve assumption that all opinions are worthy of consideration. But not all opinions are worthy of consideration because some are invalid.
For an opinion to be valid and worthy of consideration, it must be epistemically reliable. Which means that it must be the product of the tried and tested methods of systematic research, critical thinking, and analysis. In the absence of these prerequisites, opinion is no more than unsubstantiated belief.
There is an additional factor to consider. It’s not only that opinion can be invalid because it is empirically unsubstantiated, it can also be so because it has been deliberately manufactured as a form of ignorance.
In Agnotolgy: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger note that “ignorance is more than a void.” They argue that ignorance is consciously and deliberately constructed by various role-players in society to serve political and economic objectives. This ignorance can take the form of simple lies or can be sustained by the cultivation of doubt.
It is this cultivation of doubt that currently plagues public discourse. In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe how political and corporate interests have, since the 1950s, systematically cultivated doubt to obscure the truth about the dangers of smoking and the burning of fossil fuels, among other things. These forces have done so by peddling lies and distortions which have cultivated spurious controversies.
In cultivating spurious controversies, political and corporate interests have, in turn, cleverly and nefariously cultivated discussions. However, as Oreskes and Conway show, these discussions are not “legitimate” because the “controversies” under discussion have been carefully constructed to hide various truths.
These are, therefore, not discussions that we should partake in with the belief that we “might be wrong this time.” If the evidence being presented by one party in any debate is patently bogus and is being presented for disingenuous reasons, then we should not enter into discussions about it. To be able to discern what is bogus and disingenuous we need to exercise critical thinking skills.
We should reject such discussions not only because they are spurious, but also because they are a waste of our time. Acclaimed biologist E. O. Wilson stated that the peddlers of lies and distortions are the “parasite load” on scholars who end up spending far too much time and effort rebutting them when they could be getting on with the real work that needs to be done.
The late Toni Morrison made a similar point when she remarked:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
This trap of having to explain “over and over again” is a dangerous one to get caught in because there’s often no end to it. This is because the racist or the climate denier will rarely accept the evidence you provide, no matter how compelling it is. Try asking a climate change denialist what level of evidence will convince them that climate change is human-induced and you’ll quickly find there is no level.
In a world where doubt and ignorance have become merchandised, and where news is routinely reduced to “fake news,” it is critically important that we do not “enter every issue with the very real possibility that we might be wrong this time.” We need to be far more discerning than that.
When we have presidents and prime ministers inventing “facts” on the fly to bolster increasingly repressive agendas, it is our job as informed and engaged citizens to use the tools of critical thinking. For it is only through these tools that we will be able to wisely select which arguments we should engage with.
We’ve abandoned these tools if we “enter every issue with the very real possibility that we might be wrong.”