Posted 07 October 2012 - 15:50 PM
From: By: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University
Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.
Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”
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 indefensible.
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.
Firstly, what’s an opinion?
Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.
You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”
Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.
So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?
If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.
But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.
On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups</a>.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.
Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “ there's evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.
The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “ confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.
So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.
Read more from Patrick Stokes: The ethics of bravery.
Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Read the original article HERE.
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Posted 09 October 2012 - 15:37 PM
Posted 31 October 2012 - 18:40 PM
There’s just one minor (or is it?) point where I’d take issue:
That’s really not trivial. Not at all. In the logical sense, perhaps, but the right to think and say what you want is fundamental. Do, no. But think and say, absolutely.
I’m not just being awkward for devilment. Having the ‘right to your opinion’ is a matter of context which, in fairness, I think Patrick Stokes made clear. In a philosophy class, where the aim is to teach students to construct rational arguments, it’s reasonable to say that you can only hold the opinion you can argue. Makes perfect sense.
And in science, where progress is made through testing hypotheses and making reasonable predictions based on the results, then it’s sensible to rule that opinion has no real place.
And when we put ourselves in those contexts -- such as when we take it on ourselves to discuss climate change, despite probably not being qualified to do so -- it’s crucial that we adopt those rules as best we can for ourselves. Otherwise, we end up with the situation we have right now where, frankly, I have no idea where I might get politically untainted information about the climate.
It’s right to say that, just because I believe something, I can’t just expect others to acknowledge it as the truth, unless I can either make a very convincing argument, or demonstrate it with objective evidence. In that respect, the common atheist criticism about religion demanding automatic respect is fair. I don’t expect non-believers to accept my religion as true, but until it is shown to be demonstrably false, I do expect them to allow me the right to it for myself.
(The argument of the ‘burden of proof’ will probably come up at this point, but it’s worth considering that most of the (relatively few) outright conflicts between scientific fact and certain religions have been resolved because the religious claim has been specifically disproved. We might like to think that no-one would accept any belief if it can’t be proven true; but the unavoidable reality is that even science is predominantly based on disproving things. I think it’s just how people work.)
I’m all for it, and I'm quite happy to try to explain why I think what I do. But, inevitably, as with all humans, I will eventually get to a point where I'll be reduced to saying, "because that's just what I think".
Posted 09 October 2015 - 21:05 PM
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