Wednesday, June 20, 2018

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Time to get the facts straight about opinions


Opinions are like — mouths — everyone’s got one, or insert whatever other body part you think fits.

In any case, you may understand the adage, which implies that everyone has an opinion, but that does not mean that everyone’s opinion is worth taking into account.

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University in Australia, Patrick Stokes, wrote the article, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” in The Conversation US, an online publication focused on addressing the quality of public discourse and the value of expert input concerning various subjects.

As an educator, Stokes tells his students that while they are entitled to argue a point, they are not entitled to an opinion about it in his class.

“A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument — and to recognize when a belief has become indefendable,” wrote Stokes.

Stokes is not alone in referencing beliefs in relation to presenting viewpoints.

“Faced with opposing claims, people tend to pick the more agreeable one, even when it’s factually less plausible — a condition that Lance Bennett calls ‘the democratization of truth,’” wrote Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University in his book Informing the News.

“In a process that psychologists call ‘motivated reasoning,’ people are able to process information in a way that allows them in some situations to believe what they want to believe,” wrote Patterson.

Here we have two experts, one in philosophy and one politics and the press, pointing to beliefs as a filter through which opinions are created and facts sifted.

One question I ask myself and my students in a world overpopulated with information, opinions, dramatized news and fake news is “Who or what is right?”

A vocabulary lesson is in order before we can make sense of the linguistic chaos.

Opinions, according to Stokes, who cites Plato, have a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to them.

“I like to read,” is my opinion. I do not need to quantify it.

“The author of the book should be awarded a Pulitzer,” could be my opinion, but it would not need to be supported with reasons or evidence unless I was on the committee determining the Pulitzer winners.

In that context, I would need to measure the book against criteria, and I would need to know enough about books to be able to make that judgment.

Let’s take mechanical advice as another example. I may give my opinion that the smoke coming from the engine means the radiator is broken.

I am not a mechanic, and while I may have had a smoking engine situation before that turned out to be an issue with the radiator, the expert — the person who fixes vehicles for a living  — is the most reliable and informed person to ask for mechanical advice, not me.

If, however, I believe that mechanics will lie to me about what is wrong with my vehicle to get more money out of me, I am unlikely to trust what the mechanic says, regardless of his or her experience or knowledge.

Beliefs, according to Deepak Chopra, American author, public speaker and alternative medicine advocate, are thoughts that are true for an individual.

SmartMinds, a company that teaches leadership by “bringing company culture and blockchain technology together,” defines beliefs as “assumptions we hold to be true.”

According to the SmartMinds article, “How Your Beliefs Shape Your Life,” beliefs are formed by experience, and Chopra says in his speech on Oprah’s OWN SuperSoul, that beliefs are shaped by the interpretation of past experiences.

Both Chopra and SmartMinds say that our realities are governed by our beliefs.

Ty Bennett, entrepreneur, author and speaker who teaches leadership skills, adds to these definitions of belief by breaking down the word.

“Be” comes from “being,” to be, to live, he wrote in the article, “The True Definition of Belief.”

“Leif” comes from the Indo-European word “leubh,” meaning love.

Bennett concludes that belief means, “to be in love with,” which can be supported by information in a quick search on Etymology Online

Essentially, a belief that mechanics will rip me off is developed through personal experience or the experience of people I trust, and the more negative experiences I have, or the more stories I hear to reinforce that belief, the more in love with it I will become, making it a truth or fact in my mind, rather than a belief.

The problem with beliefs is that our choices and actions are shaped by our beliefs. So negative interactions with the mechanic could be a result of negative beliefs, creating the self-fulfilling prophecy.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a “belief that comes true because we are acting as if it is already true” according to Carolyn Kaufman Psy.D. in the article “Using Self-fulfilling Prophecies to Your Advantage.”

Hypothetically speaking, the opinion that mechanics are crooks comes from negative experiences or stories I have chosen to believe, and could be reinforced by my own actions or interpretations of what the mechanic does or doesn’t do or says, or doesn’t say.

The poor mechanic doesn’t have a chance with me if I am set on the belief (fact in my mind) that he/she is going to take me for every dime I can muster.

Given all of this information, from a diverse group of experts, I have come to the conclusion that opinions need to be considered with caution.

I need to be careful when I give them, making sure that I have valid evidence to support what I am talking about, and that I know enough with an acceptable depth of knowledge to be giving an informed opinion about the subject at hand.

Education and journalism are my areas of expertise, but no one should ask me to be on a panel to explain the workings of tribal governments even if I do live on a reservation.

I agree with Stokes, that while everyone is entitled to express their views about a subject, not everyone should be taken seriously — which means taken as experts that can be trusted and whose viewpoints should be seriously considered in the decision, planning and action process.

We have to be aware of our beliefs and how they shape the information we accept and reject, not only in our personal life decisions, but also in decisions that impact our communities and countries.

We also have to understand that as citizens, we need to be more responsible when sharing opinions and listening to them.

We need to expect evidence to support opinions about community issues, areas of technical or professional expertise, etc., from one another, and be careful that our beliefs are not preventing us from making better decisions or taking the best course of action.