How Good Are Your Opinions?
Which of the following individuals is likely to be most successful at persuading the public to buy a certain brand of running shoes? Explain your reasoning.
A physician in general practice
The surgeon general of the United States
How Good Are Your Opinions?
To me truth is precious. . . . I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude and be wrong. . . . The holding of the views herein set forth has already won for me the scorn and contempt and ridicule of some of my fellow men. I am looked upon as being odd, strange, peculiar. . . . But truth is truth and though all the world reject
it and turn against me, I will cling to truth still.1
Stirring words, those. You can envision their author bravely facing legions of reactionaries intent on imposing their narrow dogmas on him. In the background you can almost hear a chorus singing “Stout-Hearted Men.” Stand tall, brave hero. Never give in!
But wait a minute. Just who is the author? And what exactly is the opinion he is valiantly defending? His name is Charles Silvester de Fort. The quotation is from a booklet he wrote in 1931. And the opinion is—are you ready for this?—that the earth is flat.
People have always taken their opinions seriously, but today many people embrace their opinions with extraordinary passion. “I have a right to my opinion” and “Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion” are common expressions. Question another person’s opinion and you’re likely to hear, “Well, that’s my OPINION.” The unspoken message is “Case closed.”
Is that a reasonable view? Is it inappropriate to challenge the opinions of others? The answer depends on the kind of issue involved. If it is a matter of taste, then the standard is the undemanding one of personal preference. If Agnes finds Reginald handsome and Sally disagrees, there’s really no basis for a meaningful dispute. Ditto if Ralph drools over an orange Camaro with brass wire hubcaps and purple upholstery and Carla is repulsed by it. Some people put catsup on hot dogs, while others prefer mustard or rel- ish, and perhaps at this very moment someone, somewhere, is slathering a hot dog with mayonnaise or blueberries or pureed brussels sprouts. So what? Vive la différence!
However, consider this very different use of the term opinion: A news- paper reports that the Supreme Court has delivered its opinion in a contro- versial case. Obviously, the justices did not state their personal preferences, their mere likes and dislikes. They stated their considered judgment, painstakingly arrived at after thorough inquiry and deliberation.
In the context of critical thinking, the term opinion refers to expres- sions of judgment rather than to expressions of taste.* In some cases, unfortunately, it is not clear whether someone is expressing taste or judg ment. A friend might say to you, as you leave a movie theater, “That was a wonderful film,” which could mean “I liked it” or “It meets a very high standard of cinematography.” If she is merely saying she liked it, and you didn’t, the disagreement would be over personal taste, which is pointless to debate. However, if she is making an aesthetic judgment, you could reasonably challenge her, citing specific film standards the movie failed to meet.
Is everyone entitled to his or her opinion? In a free country this is not only permitted but guaranteed. In Great Britain, for example, there is still a Flat Earth Society. As the name implies, the members of this organization believe that the earth is not spherical but flat. In this country, too, each of us is free to take as bizarre a position as we please about any matter we choose. When the telephone operator announces, “That’ll be ninety-five cents for the first three minutes,” you may respond, “No, it won’t—it’ll be twenty-eight cents.” When the service station attendant notifies you, “Your oil is down a quart,” you may reply, “Wrong—it’s up three.”
Being free to hold an opinion and express it does not, of course, guar- antee favorable consequences. The operator may hang up on you, and the service station attendant may respond unpleasantly.
Acting on our opinions carries even less assurance. Consider the case of the California couple who took their eleven-year-old diabetic son to a faith healer. Secure in their opinion that the man had cured the boy, they threw away his insulin. Three days later, the boy died. The parents remained unshaken in their belief, expressing the opinion that God would raise the boy from the dead. The police arrested them, charging them with manslaughter.2 The law in such matters is both clear and reasonable: We are free to act on our opinions only as long as, in doing so, we do not harm others.
We might be tempted to conclude that if we are free to have an opinion, it must be correct. That, however, is not the case. Free societies are based on the wise observation that people have an inalienable right to think their own thoughts and make their own choices. But this fact in no way sug- gests that the thoughts they think and the choices they make will be rea- sonable. It is a fundamental principle of critical thinking that ideas are seldom of equal quality. Solutions to problems vary from the practical to the impractical, beliefs from the well founded to the ill founded, argu- ments from the logical to the illogical, and opinions from the informed to the uninformed. Critical thinking serves to separate the more worthy from the less worthy and, ultimately, to identify the best.
Evidence that opinions can be mistaken is all around us. The weekend drinker often has the opinion that, as long as he doesn’t drink during the week, he is not an alcoholic. The person who continues driving her gas guzzler with the needle on Empty may have the opinion that the problem being signaled can wait for another fifty miles. The student who quits school at age sixteen may have the opinion that an early entry into the job market ultimately improves job security. Yet, however deeply and sin- cerely such opinions are held, they are most likely wrong.
Research shows that people can be mistaken even when they are making a special effort to judge objectively. Sometimes their errors are caused by considerations so subtle that they are unaware of them. For example, before Taster’s Choice coffee was introduced, it was tested and sampled with three different labels—brown, yellow, and red. People who sampled the brown-labeled coffee reported that it was too strong and kept them awake at night. Those who sampled the yellow-labeled coffee found it weak and watery. Those who sampled the red-labeled coffee judged it to be just the right strength and delicious. All this even though the coffee in each jar was exactly the same. The people had been subconsciously influenced by the color of the label.3
Opinions on Moral Issues
The notion that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion is especially strong in the area of morality. Questions of right and wrong are presumed to be completely subjective and personal. According to this notion, if you believe a particular behavior is immoral and I believe it is moral, even noble, we are both right. Your view is “right for you” and mine is “right for me.”
This popular perspective may seem eminently sensible and broad- minded, but it is utterly shallow. Almost every day, situations arise that require reasonable people to violate it. Have you ever heard anyone claim that burglary, spousal abuse, or rape is morally acceptable for those who believe it is? When someone is convicted of child molesting, do citizens parade in front of the courthouse with banners proclaiming “Pedophilia may be wrong for us, but it was right for him”? If your instructor discov- ers you cheating on an examination, will she accept your explanation that you believe the end justifies the means? If a Breathalyzer test reveals that your classmate was driving with a blood alcohol level higher than his grade point average, will the police officer commend him for living by his moral conviction?
Virtually every professional organization and every corporation has a code of ethics that specifies the behaviors that are required or forbidden. Every country has a body of laws with prescribed penalties for violators. There are even international laws that govern affairs among countries. All these codes and legal systems don’t appear out of thin air. They are the products of moral judgment, the same mental activity individuals use in deciding everyday issues of right and wrong. And they are subject to the same limitations and imperfections. Opinions about moral issues, like other opinions, may be correct or incorrect.
Are there criteria we can use to increase the chance that our moral judgments will be correct? Definitely. The most important criteria are obligations, ideals, and consequences.*
• Obligations:Obligationsarerestrictionsonbehavior,demandsthat we do or avoid doing something. The most obvious kinds of obliga- tions are formal agreements such as contracts. Others include profes- sional and business obligations, and obligations of friendship and citizenship. When two or more obligations conflict, the most impor- tant one should take precedence.
• Ideals :In the general sense, ideals are notions of excellence, goals that bring greater harmony within ourselves and with others. In ethics they are also specific concepts that help us maintain respect for per- sons. Some noteworthy examples of ideals are honesty, integrity, justice, and fairness. When two or more ideals conflict in a given situation, the most important one should be given precedence.
• Consequences: Consequences are the beneficial and/or harmful results of an action that affect both the person performing that action and other people. Any examination of consequences should consider the various kinds: personal and societal; physical and emotional; immediate and eventual; intended and unintended; obvious and subtle; and possible, probable, and certain. Actions that achieve ben- eficial consequences should be preferred over those that do harm.
Whenever the consequences are mixed (some beneficial, others harmful), the preferred action is the one that achieves the greater good or the lesser evil.
Even Experts Can Be Wrong
History records numerous occasions when the expert opinion has been the wrong opinion. In ancient times the standard medical opinion was that headaches were caused by demons inside the skull. The accepted treat- ment ranged from opening the skull and releasing the demons to giving medicines derived from cow’s brain and goat dung. (Some Native American tribes preferred beaver testicles.)4
When the idea of inoculating people against diseases such as small- pox first arrived in the colonies in the early 1700s, most authorities regarded it as nonsense. Among them were Benjamin Franklin and a number of the men who later founded Harvard Medical School. Against the authorities stood a relatively unknown man who didn’t even have a medical degree, Zabdiel Boylston. Whose opinion was proved right? Not the experts’ but Zabdiel Boylston’s.5
In 1890 a Nobel Prize–winning bacteriologist, Dr. Robert Koch, reported that he had found a substance that would cure tuberculosis. When it was injected into patients, though, it was found to cause further illness and even death.
In 1904 psychologist G. Stanley Hall expressed his professional opinion that when women engage in strenuous mental activity, particu- larly with men, they experience a loss of mammary function and interest in motherhood, as well as decreased fertility. If they subsequently have children, the children will tend to be sickly.6 Today this idea is laughable.
Between 1919 and 1922 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City bought seventeen gold vessels that experts determined were authen- tic treasures from a 3,500-year-old Egyptian tomb. In 1982 the vessels were discovered to be twentieth-century fakes.7
In 1928 a drug called thorotrast was developed and used to outline certain organs of the body so that clearer X-rays could be taken. Nineteen years later, doctors learned that even small doses of the drug caused cancer.
In 1959 a sedative called thalidomide was placed on the market. Many physicians prescribed it for pregnant women. Then, when a large number of babies were born deformed, medical authorities realized that thalidomide was to blame.
In 1973, using refined radar mapping techniques, scientists decided that their earlier claims about the surface of Venus were wrong. It was not smooth, as they had thought, but pockmarked with craters.8
In the 1980s and 1990s one of the hottest topics in the publishing and seminar industries was co-dependency. Anyone related to an alcoholic or drug addict was considered to be a contributor to the problem, chiefly by unconsciously encouraging the person’s habit or enabling the person to in- dulge it. Soon the idea of co-dependency became the diagnosis of choice for any situation characterized by out-of-control behavior. Co-dependents were urged to buy books, attend seminars, and join their troubled family member in counseling. Then one curious researcher, Edith Gomberg, examined the scientific research base on which the movement was founded. She found . . . zip, nada, nothing. In her words, “There are no surveys, no clin- ical research, no evaluations; only descriptive, impressionistic statements.”9
For most of the twentieth century, the universally accepted scientific opinion was that stomach ulcers are caused by excess stomach acid gener- ated by stress. Then Barry Marshall demonstrated that ulcers are caused by bacteria and can be cured with antibiotics.
Remember the brontosaurus with his head stretching to the treetops in Jurassic Park? That scene reflected the traditional scientific opinion that the big dinosaurs dined on leaves thirty or more feet off the ground. In 1999, however, Michael Parrish, a northern Illinois researcher, experi- mented with a computer model of the neck bones of large dinosaurs and discovered that they could never have lifted their heads above the level of their bodies. If they had, their neck vertebrae would have collapsed. They couldn’t have stood on their hind legs, either, because the demands on their blood pressure would have been excessive.10
For years physicians told us that fiber lowers cholesterol and protects against colon cancer. Eventually, medical research established that it doesn’t lower cholesterol. Then researchers demonstrated that it doesn’t protect against colon cancer.11
To this day, many experts are convinced that the cause of crime is a bad social environment and that the solution is to pour millions of dollars into poor neighborhoods for a variety of social programs. Other experts are equally convinced that the cause of crime is an emotional disorder that can be cured only by psychological counseling. But a leading researcher, Stanton Samenow, disputes both views. Samenow argues that “bad neighborhoods, inadequate parents, television, schools, drugs, or unemployment” are not the cause of crime—criminals themselves are. They break the law not because conditions force them to but because they choose to, and they choose to because they consider themselves special and therefore above the law. In Samenow’s view, the key to criminals’ rehabilitation is for them to accept responsibility for their behavior.12 Is Samenow correct? Time will tell.
It is impossible to know what expert opinions of our time will be overturned by researchers in the future. But we can be sure that some will be. And they may well be views that today seem unassailable.
Kinds of Errors
Opinion can be corrupted by any one of four broad kinds of errors.* These classifications, with examples added for clarification, are the following:
1. Errors or tendencies to error common among all people by virtue of their being human (for example, the tendency to perceive selectively or rush to judgment or oversimplify complex realities) ?
2. Errors or tendencies to error associated with one’s individual habits of mind or personal attitudes, beliefs, or theories (for example, the habit of thinking the worst of members of a race or religion against which one harbors prejudice) ?
3. Errors that come from human communication and the limitations of language (for example, the practice of expressing a thought or feel- ing inadequately and leading others to form a mistaken impression) ?
4. Errors in the general fashion of an age (for example, the tendency in our grandparents’ day to accept authority unquestioningly or the tendency in ours to recognize no authority but oneself ) ?Some people, of course, are more prone to errors than others. English ?
philosopher John Locke observed that these people fall into three groups:
Those who seldom reason at all, but think and act as those around them do—parents, neighbors, the clergy, or anyone else they admire and respect. Such people want to avoid the difficulty that accompanies thinking for themselves.
Those who are determined to let passion rather than reason govern their lives. Those people are influenced only by reasoning that supports their prejudices.
Those who sincerely follow reason, but lack sound, overall good sense, and so do not look at all sides of an issue. They tend to talk with one type of person, read one type of book, and so are exposed to only one viewpoint.13
To Locke’s list we should add one more type: those who never bother to reexamine an opinion once it has been formed. These people are often the most error prone of all, for they forfeit all opportunity to correct mistaken opinions when new evidence arises.
Informed Versus Uninformed Opinion
If experts can, like the rest of us, be wrong, why are their opinions more highly valued than those of nonexperts? In light of the examples we have con- sidered, we might conclude that it is a waste of time to consult the experts. Let’s look at some situations and see if this conclusion is reasonable.
Novum Organum, Book I (1620).
What are the effects of hashish on those who smoke it? We could ask the opinion of a smoker or take a poll of a large number of smokers. But it would be more prudent to obtain the opinion of one or more trained observers, research scientists who have conducted studies of the effects of hashish smoking. (At least one such group, a team of army doctors, has found that heavy use of hashish leads to severe lung damage. Also, if the smoker is predisposed to schizophrenia, hashish can cause long-lasting episodes of that disorder.14)
A giant quasar is positioned on what may be the edge of our universe, 10 billion light-years away from us.15 (To calculate the distance in miles, just multiply the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, by the number of seconds in a day, 86,400; next multiply that answer by the number of days in a year, 365; finally, multiply that answer by 10,000,000,000.) The pinpoint of light viewed by astronomers has been streaking through space for all those years and has just reached us. The quasar may very well have ceased to exist millions and millions of years ago. Did it? It may take millions and millions of years before we can know. If we wanted to find out more about this quasar or about quasars in general, we could stop someone on a street corner and ask about it, and that person would be free to offer an opinion. But it would be more sensible to ask an astronomer.
Can whales communicate with one another? If so, how far can they transmit messages? Would our auto mechanic have an opinion on this matter? Perhaps. And so might our grocer, dentist, and banker. But no matter how intelligent these people are, chances are their opinions about whales are not very well informed. The people whose opinions would be valuable would be those who have done some research with whales. (They would tell us that the humpback whales can make a variety of sounds. In addition to clicking noises, they make creaking and banging and squeaking noises. They’ve been found to make these sounds for as long as several minutes at a time, at an intensity of 100 to 110 decibels, and audible for a distance of 25,000 miles.16)
Similar examples could be cited from every field of knowledge—from antique collecting to ethics, from art to criminology. All would support the same view: that by examining the opinions of informed people before mak- ing up our minds, we broaden our perspective, see details we might not see by ourselves, consider facts we would otherwise be unaware of, and lessen our chances of error. (It is foolish to look for guarantees of correctness— there are none.) No one can know everything about everything; there is simply not enough time to learn. Consulting those who have given their special attention to the field of knowledge in question is therefore a mark not of dependence or irresponsibility but of efficiency and good sense.
To be considered informed, an opinion must be based on something more substantial than its familiarity to us or the length of time we have held it or our presumed right to think whatever we wish. It must be based on careful consideration of the evidence. And when we express an opinion in formal speaking or writing, we should support it adequately. Authors Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker, for example, assert that the reason teaching in the United States has not been a highly respected profession is that most schoolteachers traditionally have been women. To support this contention, they trace the relevant historical development, citing admin- istrative directives and statements of philosophy, presenting hiring patterns (from 59 percent women in 1870 to 86 percent in 1920), detailing significant shifts in curricula, contrasting male and female salary statistics, and demonstrating the relative powerlessness of women to negotiate professional-level salaries and working conditions.17
As this example illustrates, in most responsible expressions of opinion, the statement of opinion takes up only a sentence or two, while the sup- porting details fill paragraphs, pages, and even entire chapters. Keep this in mind when writing your analytic papers.
Forming Opinions Responsibly
One of the things that makes human beings vastly more complex and in- teresting than cows or trees is their ability to form opinions. Forming opinions is natural. Even if we wanted to stop doing so, we couldn’t. Nor should we want to. This ability has two sides, however. It can either lift us to wisdom or mire us in shallowness or even absurdity. Here are some tips that can help you improve the quality of your opinions:
1. Understand how opinions are formed. Like every other human being, you are constantly perceiving—that is, receiving data through your senses. Also like everyone else, you have a natural drive to discover meaning in your perceptions. That drive can be enhanced or sup- pressed, but it can never be entirely lost. In practical terms, this means that you cannot help producing opinions about what you see and hear whether or not you take control of the process. When you are not in control, your mental system operates in the uncritical default mode. Here is how that uncritical mode compares with the conscious and more conscientious critical thinking mode:
Uncritical Default Mode
Perceive?Let an opinion “come to mind”
Focus on information that supports the opinion
Embrace the opinion
Critical Thinking Mode
Perceive?Investigate the issue Consider alternative opinions
Decide which opinion is most reasonable
2. Resist the temptation to treat your opinions as facts. This temptation can be powerful. Once you’ve formed an opinion, it is natural to bond with it, much as a parent bonds with a baby. The more you call your opinion to mind and express it to others, the stronger the bond becomes. To question its legitimacy soon becomes unthinkable. Nevertheless, you can be sure that some of your opinions have been uncritically formed and therefore need to be challenged. The prob- lem is that you can’t be sure which ones those are. The prudent approach is to question any opinion, even a cherished one, the moment evidence arises that suggests it is based on habit, impulse, whim, personal preference, or the influence of fashionable ideas rather than reality.
3. Monitor your thoughts to prevent the uncritical default mode from taking charge. Whenever you begin forming impressions of a person, place, or situation, follow the advice of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus: “Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impres- sion, but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try [test] you.’” This approach will prevent your impressions from hardening into opinions before you determine their reasonableness.
By following these three steps, you will gain control of your opinions, and that is a considerable advantage over having them control you.