Don’t Trust Your Opinions

why science rules everything in the information age

It’s hard to imagine that your views and experiences aren’t enough to lend credibility to an idea. Often times, we form opinions and beliefs about things based on personal experience, or “gut feelings”. After all, there’s nothing more real than something you have seen with your own eyes, and they always say to trust your gut.

But when you step back and take a second look at this way of justifying beliefs, you will realize how crazy it is. You are just one person, living in one very short time period, in one little tiny part of the world. If you are using only personal experience to back life-shaping beliefs and values, that’s some very thin support for something that will make a big impact on your life. On top of that, if you are talking with someone else about this belief, this makes it dangerous. You could impact the way someone else lives their life based on your tiny sliver of anecdotal evidence. To take it to the extreme, Hitler based his hatred of Jews on his personal experiences with them in Vienna (ref). But I think we can all agree that this was a fairly unreasonable judgement.

The Research Filter

It goes against all human instinct, but I have had to learn not to trust opinions I have formed from life experience. I certainly have a little pocket of my brain where I store opinions that I am slowly forming based on observation and experience, as anyone does. But before any of these ideas are able to emerge and blossom into beliefs that impact the way I act, I make sure it has been run through the “add science, research, and other peoples’ opinions to my personal experiences” filter. Only then will I allow it to pass through the gates into the “personal beliefs and values” zone. Here’s a really brilliant and complex technical diagram of the concept ; )

Sure, it’s a bit more work. But the good news is that nowadays, it’s super easy to look things up and find accurate answers. For example, if you drink coffee and feel like it’s boosting your productivity and providing a great benefit to your life, you can look it up and see if this is true (spoiler alert: it’s not)! Or if someone told you that vaccinating your children can give them autism, or that diet soda is good or bad for you. These are easy things to verify through the magic of the internet, provided you know how to research well and are sure that peer-reviewed scientific research backs up your sources.

This is an enormously powerful concept. Instead of assuming things, or evaluating them based on experience, you can suddenly add the measured results of a cohort study carried out on thousands of people over 20 years as evidence behind your beliefs. It’s hard to argue with that, right?

What if Science is Wrong?

Well, not always. I was recently having a conversation about this with some friends, and some people objected to this concept on the grounds that science is not always correct. Often times in history, they said, science has been wrong about things. So my gut instinct could be right.

Well, if you want to get right down to it, nothing is always correct. There’s no pure and absolute truth, it doesn’t exist. “Truth”, in reality, is a measure of what’s most likely to be true. And the fact is, a scientific study is many orders of magnitude more likely to be true than your personal opinion, whether you like it or not. So when pitting one against the other, there’s simply no way to justify that I should believe one random person’s gut instinct over a peer-reviewed science paper — it just doesn’t make sense!

That being said, there are still a number of people I have had conversations with over the course of the trip I’m on, and my life in general who simply do not believe in science or academics. When it comes down to it, if you subscribe to the value of science, as I’m sure all my readers do (or they wouldn’t be here), there is no reason to compare your values with or argue with someone who does not believe in science, or someone who believes that their personal opinion holds more weight than the results of a carefully conducted scientific study. This kind of conversation will never lead to a reasonable conclusion, and will only be a process of both people spinning their wheels and creating animosity for no reason. So if you have found yourself in a conversation like this, the best thing you can do is concede and gracefully exit, knowing that it’s much better to change the topic, smile, and talk about other things.

Start Looking Things Up!

Whenever I find myself in a conversation where people are taking a guess about something, or relating a personal story to back a conclusion, I just put a pause on the conversation and say “let’s just look it up!”, then bust out my phone and google it. Not too long later, the conflict has ended, the question has been answered, and everyone involved is better off because of it. Or sometimes, the conflict goes on, but as a more healthy and educated discussion instead of opinion-backed bickering. I’d encourage you to try this too! It leads to a lot less animosity, a lot more knowledge, and a stronger set of values.

Photo is of a spiral staircase inside a monument in London. Often times, pitting opinion against opinion can end up looking like an endless cycle, like this staircase. Break out of the cycle with research!

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