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philosophy, Politics, science

Opinions and Justification

We humans are obsessed with opinions.  Every major newspaper in America has an Opinion Page, and most online news sources have far more bandwidth taken up by reader comments than actual content.  ESPN used to be a network that broadcast sporting events.  Now it’s three networks, but there’s precious little live sports.  Instead, it’s former sports stars giving their opinion of what I could be watching if only any networks broadcast live sports anymore.  There are now well over a hundred million blogs on the internet.  FOX News might well be called the “Right Wing Opinion Channel.”  AM Radio is almost completely dominated by talk shows.  We love opinions.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we’re so infatuated with what other people think?  What part of our evolutionary past created in us the drive to saturate our environment with information, especially when so much of it is useless?

Information is Free

When evolution first discovered the efficiency of task specialization, it was the gateway to spectacular feats of engineering and population explosion.  As numerous as we humans are, our numbers are minuscule compared to the ants.  The rigid caste system and biological specialization in ants allows for an extremely efficient use of resources and space.  As a result, ants are everywhere.  They are nearly perfectly adapted to almost any environment on earth.

Humans, on the other hand, are far less efficient creatures.  We are not born into a particular caste.  In general, any human can do anything any other human can do.  This has benefits, of course.  Egalitarian government would have never been imagined if we weren’t born basically equal.  Individually, we can change jobs many times and still expect to have success in every one.  We are much more malleable in one lifetime than ants.  We can react much more dynamically to our environment.  The cost of this adaptation is inefficiency.   In one lifetime, a human is concerned with becoming educated, forming social bonds, securing resources, finding a mate, finding a job, raising children, advancing his social status, preserving his own health, and at least a dozen other activities, each of which could easily be a full time job.  A worker ant, on the other hand, is only concerned with one thing — find food and bring it to the nest.  (Yes, some ants have dual rolls, but the general point is still well made.)

With all this expenditure of resources, time, and energy required of each individual human, it would seem a daunting task for any of us to ever do anything well enough to survive.  Yet, we have not only survived, we have spread to nearly as large a surface area as the ants, and our population has grown exponentially in only an eyeblink of evolutionary time.   The secret to this success is the exponential nature of information exchange.

If I have two apples and give you one, I have one apple and you have one apple.  In times of scarcity, it is not to my advantage to give you an apple, even if your life is precious to me, for if neither of us has enough to eat, we will both die.  However, if I know the location of a huge store of food and you do not, I can tell you where it is and lose nothing.  I can still eat my fill, but now you can also eat your fill.  I have given without losing!   Now that both of us know a valuable piece of information, each of us can give it to one person, and suddenly, four people will have an equal amount of knowledge!  (Our apples would be in halves by now.)  If each of those four people told one person, eight would know.

To be fair, ants use this kind of information exchange.  When one ant finds food, she begins laying a continuous scent trail.  When another ant stumbles on it, she too lays a trail.  As more and more ants discover the trail, the trail itself becomes reinforced and easier to find.  Soon, most of the workers know where they’re going.   Bees exchange information, too.  In fact, one of the defining features of social animals is information exchange.  Humans, being the most intelligent and arguably most socially complex animal on earth, simply take information exchange to new levels.

To put it briefly, then, information exchange is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.  We survived (and continue to survive) because we are driven to exchange information.   Sure, we sometimes treat information as a commodity, but this is another topic for another article.    The broad point is that humans have made up for the inefficiency of our adaptable natures by developing a kind of hyper-dependence on information.

Kinds of Opinions

We’ve all heard the cliche:  “Opinions are like assholes.  Everybody’s got one, and they all stink.”  While this is an understandable reaction to an overflow of unreliable information, it’s not entirely true.  Some opinions do stink, while others are very reliable.  Unfortunately, because we are all somewhat hard-wired to want to give out information, the proportion of reliable opinions to unreliable is generally very lopsided.

How do we sort out good opinions from bad?  My opinion (which you can judge for yourself) is that the answer lies in understanding our own opinions.  Let’s take a quick example.  I’d like you to play a game with me.  I’m going to ask your opinion of an issue you’re probably familiar with, and I want you to take note of two things — what you believe to be the truth, and how strongly you believe it.  If you like, rate the strength of your belief on a 1 to 10 scale.

Ok.  Here’s the question:  Was the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 consistent with the kind of  demolition we’d expect from a jet airplane impact?

Do you have your answer?  How strongly do you believe it?

Now that you’ve done this, let’s check into the justification for your beliefs.  First, are you a physicist?  The answer’s probably no, right?  Supposing you are a physicist, have you thoroughly studied this particular aspect of physics?  Have you worked out equations for building demolition?  Have you studied the disintegration of metal beams when exposed to jet fuel fires?

Ok.  Supposing you’re not a physicist, on what do you base your opinion?  If you’re like most Americans, you base it on what other people have told you.  However, what do you know about their qualifications?  How do you check their reliability?  If you’re not a physicist, how can you know that a physicist is telling the truth when he says it wasn’t pre-planted explosives?

This is the dilemma of information exchange.  Most of the time, when someone tells us something, we have to believe without first-hand justification.  When you stop and think about it, it’s really pretty amazing how much trust we put in other people.   We’ve all stopped and asked complete strangers for directions.  Who is to say that we won’t be led into the worst crime ridden part of the city when we want to go to City Hall?  The amount of blind trust we place in other humans is pretty staggering.

The sad truth is that most people are not justified in expressing most of their opinions.  That is, they have no direct or reliable knowledge of the subject on which they’re opining.  In some cases, this isn’t that big a deal.  Do you think the Angels or the Cardinals have a better chance of going to the World Series?  Who cares?  Regardless of the reliability of your opinion, there’s very little impact your opinion is going to make on either your life or mine.  Other opinions, though, are very important.

What is your opinion on the viability of a nationalized health care system?

Now that you’ve called your opinion to the front of your brain, answer these questions:  What is the average cost per capita of the public health system in Canada?  What about in England?  Norway?  Costa Rica?  Compared to the cost per person, how timely and reliable are the treatments received by patients?  How is timeliness measured?  What is the average survival rate of cancer patients in the most successful privatized health care systems?  What about in the most successful socialized systems?

Clearly, healthcare is a very important issue.  Even so, most people simply don’t have the information necessary to form a justified opinion.   Equally important to many people is education.  Do you believe in evolution or Intelligent Design?  Can you explain the process by which the four base chemicals in DNA are translated into proteins?

The simple fact is that most humans simply don’t have the time or the resources to form genuinely justifiable opinions on most subjects, but we are still required on a daily basis to put our own well being on the line based on our evaluation of things we know little or nothing about.  Recognizing this fact, I believe, is the first step to humility.  Readers of this blog will note that there are many areas of science I’ve never written about.  I rarely discuss politics.  I have not once expressed an opinion regarding U.S. support of Israel.  I have not written any articles on the U.S.’s immigration policy.  For that matter, I’ve never (and will never) write about the death penalty.

I have opinions on all of these subjects, and you, gentle reader, will never know what they are.  You will never know my opinion on the true nature of black holes.  String theory, multiverse theory, and the viability of the ion engine for interstellar travel?  Look somewhere else.  I’m keeping my mouth shut, even though I have my own beliefs.

The easiest way to differentiate useful information from filler is to learn the logical fallacies.  When you form an opinion, examine it for fallacies.  Are you appealing to popularity?  Tradition?  Authority?  Are you assuming that correlation is equal to causation?  Are you dismissing an opinion because you dislike the person offering it?  If you find that your opinion is based primarily on a logical fallacy, you have made it nearly all the way to a humbling realization:  There is nothing you can add to a discussion on this topic, and your opinion is not valuable to other people.

To be fair, we like exchanging uninformed opinion, and it has a certain social element to it.  If we restricted ourselves to only discussing that which we justifiably believe, coctail parties would be dreadful.  Personally, I enjoy listening to sports talk radio even though it accomplishes essentially nothing in the universe.  We need not sink into hermetic depression upon realizing that our opinions are basically useless.  Instead, I believe we can categorize our opinions in the following way:

  • Justified, defensible opinions — These are the areas where we are justified not only in our opinion, but in voicing our opinion when others have it wrong.  This category is the smallest by far, and most humans would do well to remember this fact.
  • Opinions based on fallacies and/or unjustifiable information — These opinions are entertaining at parties and fun for coffee table debates.  However, they are extremely dangerous when taken seriously on blogs, at voting booths, or in Congressional Caucuses.

Personally, I have made a vow to myself that I will do my best to categorize my own opinions this way, and to keep those in the second category where they belong — between friends.  For me to portray them as anything other than filler information would be wrong.  For me to try to significantly influence the lives of millions of other people based on a fallacy?  Morally destitute.

I realize I’ve done little to describe the method for determining the strength of an opinion.  I’ll get to that soon, but before exploring it in detail, I’d like to encourage you to read a bit more:

The Scientific Method

Where Do Christians Get Their Morality?

Science vs. Cult of Personality

All of these articles deal directly with the foundation for forming justified opinions — namely, the scientific method combined with good critical thinking.  I’ll be posting a step by step method in the near future (with any luck), but in the meantime, these three articles will help to justify(!) the method I will advocate.



5 thoughts on “Opinions and Justification

  1. Good article, I think the link is broken on the bottom: “Where do Christians get their morality”.

    Posted by tony | August 25, 2009, 5:15 pm
  2. Fixed. Thank you.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 25, 2009, 6:01 pm
  3. Well (and this will be a pretty funny thing to say about an article dealing with opinion itself), I have to disagree that a person absolutely requires specialized expertise in order to give a justified opinion.

    For example:

    Ok. Here’s the question: Was the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11 consistent with the kind of demolition we’d expect from a jet airplane impact?

    Do you have your answer? How strongly do you believe it?

    Now that you’ve done this, let’s check into the justification for your beliefs. First, are you a physicist? The answer’s probably no, right? Supposing you are a physicist, have you thoroughly studied this particular aspect of physics? Have you worked out equations for building demolition? Have you studied the disintegration of metal beams when exposed to jet fuel fires?

    Ok. Supposing you’re not a physicist, on what do you base your opinion? If you’re like most Americans, you base it on what other people have told you. However, what do you know about their qualifications? How do you check their reliability? If you’re not a physicist, how can you know that a physicist is telling the truth when he says it wasn’t pre-planted explosives?

    Well, I’m not a physicist (as you well know) – in fact, I’m pretty bad at math. But I still am absolutely certain (a 10/10 on the strength of my convictions) that the WTC tower collapses were caused by:

    a) catastrophic damage to the superstructure of the buildings by the kinetic impact of the aircraft

    b) subsequent weakening of the steel by the heat of the burning kerosene, ignited building material, molten aluminum and molten lead.

    …How could I be so certain, not being an engineer or physicist?

    Well, just as a starting point, I can see whether or not it intuitively makes sense, based on common knowledge of the general principles & magnitudes involved. Looking at point a, for example, it makes intuitive sense (even if intuition itself is not confirmation – just a starting point) that an elongated aluminum projectile that weighs 200+ tons and is travelling at 300+ miles per hour would do a lot of damage to anything it struck.

    Moving beyond my intuitions, I can (well, in contemporary times, anyway) do some digging in the library and/or internet to see what people who are experts happen to have concluded. What’s the consensus? How large is the consensus? If there is a large consensus among experts that agrees with my intuition, I have a piece of relatively good evidence that I’m correct.

    I can go further these days, though. I can check and see what has happen to other large buildings in the past when they have caught fire. I can check for past examples of buildings that have been demolished, too, and see how similar the collapse the the WTC towers is to those. I can check logs from various contractors to see what type of materials were towed away from ground zero, I can check independent testimony from emergency crews and survivors… I could even build a computer model (or, if I had the resources, a physical model) to replicate the airliner impact on the buildings and see how the model performs (in fact, NIST has already done this).

    To paraphrase Dr. Dawkins, “You don’t have to be a scientist – you don’t have to play with the bunsen burner – in order to do science.”

    I’ve done the research. It was not laboratory research and it was not submitted to a journal for publication, but barring some monolithic conspiracy involving every media outlet and emergency services department for at least the past decade, the case is closed. I’m perfectly justified in telling others that they are incorrect in asserting that the WTC towers were not destroyed via implosion-style demolition because I’ve examined the evidence, and that is not where the evidence leads.

    Now, that being said, that is a rather easy one. No specialized knowledge is absolutely required for it because we’re dealing with familiar magnitudes and common materials. It’s like debunking Holocaust denial; anyone with an internet connection and local library can do it because the evidence in favor of the Holocaust is obvious and overwhelming.

    Some fields of study absolutely require expertise before a person can reasonably submit their opinion – theoretical physics, for example. Or molecular biology. Or biochemistry.

    You get the idea.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | August 25, 2009, 6:50 pm
  4. I do get the idea, and I must thank you for nearly writing my next entry for me!

    Note that I didn’t say one must have first hand experience to have a justified opinion — I actually didn’t say what constitutes one. I did, however, say that an opinion justified primarily by a fallacy is not justified. An opinion such as the one you’ve offered — backed by reading other people’s scientific research, comparing to previous analogous events, and using good critical thinking on all of the available data — is a reasonably well justified opinion. That’s why science is wonderful (I mention this in the third article I linked.) It frees us from trusting other people blindly and gives us an objective measure even when we haven’t done the research ourselves.

    As you say, it wouldn’t pass peer review, but the strength of an opinion should be appropriate to the impact it will have when unleashed upon the world. For example, if I have only listened to pundits who have said that socialized medicine works wonderfully in other countries, I am not prepared to enforce my will on someone else by voting for it. However, if I’ve looked up readily available peer reviewed statistics and have seen that a good number of countries with socialized medicine are ahead of the U.S. in many or most areas of healthcare, I have at least the beginning of a well justified opinion.

    Pardon me for leaving the reader hanging, but I felt that the length of this article precluded another five thousand words or more of instructions for justifying an opinion. That’s for the next entry 🙂

    Posted by hambydammit | August 25, 2009, 9:01 pm
  5. Is this used as a stop smoking aid?

    Posted by tower 200 | March 5, 2010, 5:04 pm

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