Should Skeptics Have Opinions?
For this discussion, I’m going to be considering a very narrow view of “opinion”.
: a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something : what someone thinks about a particular thing
: advice from someone with special knowledge : advice from an expert
: a formal statement by a judge, court, etc., explaining the reasons a decision was made according to laws or rules
The last two definition of opinion are not what I’m talking about here. These are specific statements made by experts. This isn’t the casual definition of opinion. When I write about evolution, I’m arguably, an expert. I’m not writing a casual opinion, but from years of experience and reading the work of other experts in the field. Yes, someone can be an expert without having contributed to the body of knowledge of the subject. An expert will also, generally, be very specific about why they are giving that statement.
But let’s look at the first definition of opinion.
A belief is “knowing” something without any evidence to support it. I have very few beliefs… maybe none. Being completely honest, I’m sure I have a few, but I don’t know what they are right off hand. I don’t have to believe that my wife and child love me, I have significant evidence to support that. I don’t believe that most politicians are crooked, I have significant evidence to support it.
I don’t think that skeptics should have beliefs. That’s kind of the point of skepticism. We look for evidence and we withhold decisions until we have that evidence. I could be wrong, and I think that this would be a very interesting avenue for discussion.
A judgement is a decision about a particular event or circumstance. Judgments should be based on facts and evidence, not on things that are not facts or evidence. Of course, being able to filter the mountains of information for good evidence is not a trivial task, but that’s a discussion for another day.
When we make a judgment as a skeptic, we should be able to point to the evidence we used. We should be able to support our judgment with that evidence using valid methods (logic, math, etc). We should be open to revising our judgment when new evidence is presented.
A way of thinking about something is a pretty nebulous phrase and the one I’m most worried about in my deceleration that skeptics shouldn’t have casual opinions. To me, a “way of thinking” means how you approach knowledge. I approach knowledge using the scientific method, research, evaluation of sources, logic, and mathematics. These are rigorous systems that have withstood the every test thrown at them. Knowledge gained in this way is more likely to be correct and linked to reality than other methods of gaining knowledge.
Many things that we think, our ‘ways of thinking’, are passed to us by our family and our culture. As a slave-owner in the early US South, one’s way of thinking was that owning slaves was fine. The slaves, of course, had a much different thought on the subject.
As skeptics, we should also be able to justify our way of thinking using rigorous techniques to gain knowledge. An idea that is passed down for generations in one’s family isn’t automatically correct or even good. We should examine even those closely held thoughts and see if they are good and correct. Using the aforementioned logic, science, etc to judge the value of our ways of thinking.
Any opinion that doesn’t stand up to that kind of examination needs to be thrown out. And once you’ve examined your opinion with that level of detail and can justify it based on evidence and logic… then it’s not really an opinion anymore (in the casual sense).
I’ve thought up some examples. I’d rather not discuss these specific examples, because it’s all just guess work and opinion… which is the point.
There are two major events in our news right now. Syria and the Navy Yard shooting.
I think almost everyone has opinions on these events. Should we bomb Syria, should we invade, should we ignore the whole thing? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. The average citizen of a 1st world country doesn’t have a clue what’s going on over there. Indeed, better than 99% of the people in Syria don’t know what’s going on. We know chemical weapons were used. We don’t know who fired them. We don’t know what kind of response will help (other than directly helping refugees with evacuation, food, and medicines). That area has problems most of us can barely understand, much less develop a solution that will work.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything. We can help. Doctor’s without borders seems to be doing some good work over there. But getting on facebook and telling you 150 friends “The government just needs to do x and that will sort the fuckers out” is just exposing one’s ignorance for the world to see. We do not have a history of successful interventions in the area. Proposing more of the same is crazy.*
Then we get another mass shooting in the US. It sucks. Unlike the majority of other countries in the world, ownership of firearms is ingrained in our culture almost as much as the automobile is. It’s one reason the US doesn’t have very good public transport, everyone wants a car. Anyway, the situation sucks and it’s stuck in a deadlock. Other countries have banned most firearms and deaths rates dropped, but they never had the common gun culture the US has. There is no chance that any gun reform is going to pass. It’s just not going to happen. The vast majority of the US can be for it and the GOP controlled house and filibuster controlled senate still won’t do anything.
Of the gun culture people are still so afraid that Obama and the UN will take their guns that they gone to stockpiling ammunition and firearms in order to defend themselves. Some (perhaps most) see themselves as The Ultimate Defender of Freedom and Liberty taking out tanks and UN attack helicopters with their pistols. Fantasy island ended years ago people. But still, no one is happy with the situation. And just like Syria, no one is going to do anything that they personally don’t like.
There will be no gun control law as long as 80 million people in the US have nearly 200 million weapons and “I don’t care how many kids die, it’s my right to keep them”. And there will continue to be mass shootings. So everyone is pissed and it’s the other guys fault.
Any opinion in these situations is just a starting point for an argument. I don’t think that the evidence of other countries is valid in the US because of our fundamental differences in the past. And no one is willing to try something and see what happens (with good reason, I think).
This was not intended as a rant, sorry. I’m trying to explain why opinions on these topics are nearly useless. My dad always said, “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one and they all stink.”
I think that he may be right. We should be making judgments on evidence, reason, and logic. But when we can’t, what’s the point? We’re literally just making stuff up. Some guy is arrested and shows up on the news. ”He looks like a killer. I think he’s guilty.” Seriously? Talk about an uninformed, dangerous opinion. And we all do it. All the time. Well, I try not to… but it doesn’t work a lot.
The topic of discussion is opinions and should skeptics have them. This is NOT the place for comments on Syria or the Navy yard shooting or gun control or anything else. Thanks!
*The definition of crazy is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result each time.