On Choosing Ideas Part 2 – You Are Not Entitled To An Opinion
In a previous post, I detailed my method for choosing ideas, and while I plan on releasing at least three more posts in addition to this one explaining my method in depth, this post addresses one of the most pernicious tactics that I have too often witnessed and encountered when debating ideas. That tactic is the claim that individuals are entitled to an opinion. 2 This dangerous idea has seeped into the mainstream media, been asserted by President Trump, and has been implied by Chief Justice John Roberts. 3 Of course, there are a plethora of logical fallacies each deserving their own post and analysis of the consequences of their harmful effects, but it is this seemingly innocuous action that I believe is the most repugnant. 4
To start, obviously there are conditions when opinions must be allowed which I will detail in this post, however, I must be clear by what I mean by opinion. Opinions can be categorized into two types of statements. The first type of opinions are objectively measurable. For example, consider the statement “radishes taste sweeter than strawberries.” Inherent in this statement is an objectively measurable and quantifiable variable – sweetness. This variable can be verified by scientific testing the result of which is essentially irrefutable. 5
The second kind of opinions are based on ethics, morality, and philosophy. For example, consider the statement “sentencing a thief to death is a better way to teach individuals not to steal things than simply putting them in jail or fining them.” 6 While “better” could mean that the action is a more effective deterrent that prevents or dissuades individuals from stealing, which is a quantifiable variable, the statement could also mean that either of those actions are a more “just” punishment for the action. 7 The essential point of division between the types of statements is the presence of an objectively measurable variable. This post will focus on the first type of statements, and while the second is discussed in part they will be more adequately addressed in a future post. Nevertheless, both types of opinions generally require the same analysis.
A Simple Request
Individuals must accept facts as they are and subject one’s position to change upon the introduction of new, sufficient, and accurate evidence. This statement I believe underpins the formation of modern society and allows for its advancement, and perhaps if accepted and practiced by all, is the greatest inhibitor of tyranny and authoritarian rule. Let me be clear on my point. A submission to a mere opinion without any scientifically valid evidence is a surrender of the most important neurological capabilities of our species – critical thinking, rationality, doubt, and the capacity for intellectual change. There are no words that can stress how important this idea is.
It is hard not to find a single issue advocated by both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum which does not originate from an abandonment and deflection of facts and evidence. Take for instance climate change. 8 The evidence could not be more prevalent, available, and obvious. 9
Now there are those who will continue to state that they are entitled to say what they want about a subject. At least initially, I will emphatically agree with them that we as individuals deserve an opportunity to debate a topic in furtherance of the social nature of our species, 10 but the moment one claims that they are entitled to an opinion is where I draw the line.
Why People are Not Entitled to an Opinion
I can think of five definitive reasons why an entitlement to an opinion should be rejected. First, the invoking of such an entitlement is often used to shield individuals from opposing positions regardless of the facts, validity, and potential consequences of their ideas – a practice I personally believe to be pure ignorance and shameful.
Second, acceptance of the entitlement, or affirmative pronouncement of it, only continues the cycle of ignorance for the individual touting the expression. Such ignorance has two other consequences. First, by merely stating that you are entitled to an opinion or accepting such a conclusion incentivizes individuals, perhaps unknowingly, to be participating in intellectual laziness. It seems sensible that should an individual decide to articulate their opinion on a given subject matter that they have at least educated themselves on the basic principles. Second, this undesirable positive feedback loop can foster more ignorant people, which will subsequently continue to deepen the divide between individuals who are fact-based and those that are not. I will detail the additional consequences of this later in the post, but given the current political environment, it seems fairly evident what they are.
Third, invoking the statement inhibits individuals from having a consensus on ideas. Consensus on ideas allow society to extrapolate reasonable, although unproven, conclusions from those ideas, which in turn leads to a testable hypothesis to ultimately establish a fundamental truth about a given situation. Additionally, consensus, in one form or another, provides exponential human capital economies of scale to tackle a problem and is necessary for mass market adoption. It is simply blind ignorance not to acknowledge the importance of every additional unit of human capital to solve a problem, even if people do not completely understand the idea.
Fourth, if individuals are allowed or invoke that they are allowed to fabricate their own facts derived from their opinions, then it is axiomatic that they are also allowed to procure their own conclusions or even their own reality from those facts. Such a situation only exacerbates the potential harms caused by an idea and is contrary to the fabric of the scientific process. 11 One must recognize that adhering and practicing the scientific method is not only a process by which to test claims, but also can be a set of guidelines for how to interact and engage with our growingly complicated world. To quote Carl Sagan, “science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking.” 12 Allowing the creation of individualized facts is also an abdication of one’s duty to defend evidence, science, and reason, and subsequently provides permission for individuals to believe in whatever they want regardless of the harms they cause to themselves or society.
Fifth, the invoking of an entitlement to an opinion, particularly by those in power is an entryway toward the degrading of republican values and the imposition of tyranny. 13
To better explain these reasons, it is helpful to apply them to specific situations – take for example vaccines. One of the signature benefits of vaccines, outside of their disease preventing properties, is that if one person were to be infected so as long as there is a sufficient number of people that are immune the disease would eventually be thwarted and thus an epidemic or in the extreme case a pandemic would be inhibited. This concept is known as herd immunity. 14 Quickly preventing the spread of disease also has another signature benefit, the quicker a disease can be suppressed the lower the chances are of mutation which would make the vaccine obsolete through the process of evolution as pathogens, similar to all life, seek to adapt themselves to their environment through the passing down of successful genes to the next generation. 15 Vaccines provide one of the best examples of the benefits that consensus has and the harms of fact less and opinionated assertions can have. When there is a consensus on the idea that vaccines are good and that they work because people who have spent the better part of a decade or more are telling you they do and all of the evidence corroborates that idea – both society and the individual benefit. Stated simply, just by believing in this idea, never mind convincing other people that the idea is good, has incalculable benefits. One such example includes the eradication of Small Pox as there is no reason this process cannot be applied to other diseases such as Polio. Unfortunately, there are hordes of people who continue to believe that vaccines cause autism contrary to all of the evidence, 16 or that taking them is an attempt by Western Powers to sterilize Muslim children. 17 It is hard to imagine a person more wicked than one who willingly, knowingly, or ignorantly putting people and humanity at risk.
Another analogous situation is present in the context of educating students on evolution. For example, we still have a faction of people that not only do not believe in evolution, but who are also actively trying to suppress its teaching in schools. 18 The consequences of this practice are already present in schools across our country that are graduating legions of scientifically inept students. 19 Meanwhile, the lack of knowledge in this domain by itself are enormously consequential since almost all biological research, development of medicines, understanding the mutations of diseases, combating antibiotic resistance, and the development of genetically modified plants and organisms are derived from a literacy in evolution. 20
Each of these examples elaborate on how stating that you are entitled to your opinion is utterly reprehensible and destroys the signature benefits that accepting facts and evidence has – reaching a consensus on a set of ideas, the consequences of ignoring science, logic, and reason, the effects of being able to procure one’s own conclusions, and the problems of continuing the cycle of ignorance.
Setting the Stage for Debate
It is practically certain that when opinions and positions on ideas are invoked a debate is necessary. With this in mind, it must be established that there are at least three requirements for people to be willing to debate an issue. First, both participants must be able to arrive at a consensus on the facts by accepting them as true (so long as the facts are scientifically accurate), regardless of any personal bias against them. 21 Second, each position advocated by each party must be defeasible, such that there is a situation where if certain provable conditions are met then an individual would be willing to change their position.22 For example, if you advocated that all lobsters are red, you must be willing to acknowledge that your position is incorrect based on seeing a blue lobster or at the very least admit that it would take you finding evidence that there are lobsters other than ones that are red. In the case where something cannot be visually provable, such as the existence of black holes or gravitational waves, then you must sight information that you need to confirm or deny your position. It is worth explicitly noting that the burden of defeasibility is on the person asserting the claim(s). Third, statements made or positions argued must be falsifiable. Falsifiability means that the statements made must have, intrinsic to their utterance, a probable and describable situation or circumstance that make the statement untrue. Such statements are the foundation of scientific thinking and hypothesis testing. Utilizing our lobster example, if the statement was made that all lobsters are red, then it would be falsified upon the viewing of a lobster of any other color. Only after these three conditions are met may a meaningful debate and thus the advancement of the collective knowledge on a topic can commence.
From this point, you could be asking, “why do I have to care about what other people think and do.” While I plan on expanding on the need to advocate for collectivism over individualism and its limits in a future post, here I will provide a basic introduction as I think it is necessary to explain this fundamental position I have asserted. To summarize, almost every human advancement from farming to the building of cities, and nearly all human inventions or at the very least the mass market infiltration of them have arisen from the collective organization and behavior of individuals. Debate inherently leads to collective action and consensus on ideas, thus an attack on the ability for our species to form collectives must be judged and criticized under the highest possible scrutiny.
The Great Enabler to Tyranny
The imposition of tyranny is a prospect that both the left and the right should fear. I have purposefully separated out this reason mentioned above until this point to emphasis rejecting the entitlement to opinions is an inhibitor of tyranny and its acceptance enables it. Debate and the need for scientifically valid facts and evidence to drive it, what I find most heinous is that Republicans – members of the party that purports to be the ones of freedom, liberty, and limited government – are not radically accepting this idea and perhaps it seems that they are wholeheartedly rejecting this premise. 23
It is well understood that dictators and tyrannical leaders who wish to entrench their hold on power first seek to distort the facts of any story and replace them with their versions of the “truth.” 24 Take for example some of the most dictatorial regimes on our planet, Russia, China, and North Korea all have predominantly or exclusively state-run or state-sanctioned media and internet outlets only. 25 The control over the streams that disseminate fact in turn controls which facts are actually released and known by the public. It is also a common tactic for dictators to over-load the media with a barrage of either misleading, false, or outright ostentatious statements to distract the public from the core issues at hand – a practice nonetheless currently being implemented by President Donald Trump. 26 More disturbing is the persistent support of Mr. Trump despite the overwhelming evidence against him that at least some collusion took place between himself and the Russian Government all while he and his army of surrogates continue to deny almost every documented and verified incident. 27 Once again the problem is clear, but not accepting and disseminating the facts as they are is inhibits the public from coming to a consensus about what is true, which deprives society of understanding the gravity of the situation and the ability to accurately respond to it. I will go further to state that any action seeking to encourage this behavior, especially from those that are in power, should only be seen as tyrannical and the research shows that many societies have faced such an unfortunate fate and I know of no evidence that shows that the United States is immune from tyranny. 28
Understanding the Deeper Political Consequences of Baseless Opinions and Detailing a Model for Assessing Ideas
What we as a society must recognize is that although it is difficult for us to accept the truth and change our minds, 29 we must do it. We cannot continuously allow ourselves and others to be sheltered by disbelief of science, reality, facts, logic, and reason. All of them must be persistently practiced and demanded from others. Absent this demand, I fear that the inability for individuals to be fact-driven will only further deepen the political partisanship present in our society. 30 Such partisanship only weakens our government designed on a consensus-based model to actually achieve any significant policy goals. 31 Worse I propose continued partisanship actually erodes the belief in the necessity and effectiveness of government itself. 32 The only reasonable remedy for this situation is whenever you engage in any form of debate with any person it is necessary and prudent to cordially i) Discuss the source of the facts, and ii) Discuss the validity of those facts, and iii) Arrive at a consensus about what the facts are. Only then may a substantive debate on the topic take place. I also propose, for the sake of both sides of an argument, that the following proposition be adopted. The required degree of scrutiny of an idea and evidence required to implement an idea is exponentially proportional to the harm caused and adoption potential by society, which I call the SEHA (“see-ha”) Framework. Stated another way. Scrutiny and Evidence Required for the Implementation of that Idea = (Harm + Adoption Potential)². Put visually
Asserting an Opinion
Although the title of this article can be seen as provocative and hyperbolic, nevertheless I do think that there are in fact very limited circumstances where opinions are allowed. Opinions only have value when the facts surrounding a claim are uncertain or unknowable (whether at the current moment or ever). If an opinion is going to be asserted, the grounds for the opinion must be detailed. First, the assertion of an opinion should be clearly disclosed. Second, the opinion can be asserted only after the unclear, unknown, or unknowable facts are clearly stated. Third, the person asserting the opinion must state their claim and authority to assert an opinion by stating their expertise (Ph.D., Lawyer, etc) and their experience (years in an industry). Fourth, any assumptions, the reasoning for those assumptions, and the evidence that is the basis for those assumptions must be explicitly stated and detailed. Fifth, the conditions for falsifiability and defeasibility must be stated clearly and unambiguously. Sixth, the opinion must be judged by its relationship (given what we know about the position) with the Foundational Elements detailed in the first post of this series. Stated here, any good idea must incorporate and facilitate the following:
- Logical reasoning and rationality to utilize evidence-based scientific thinking;
- An equitable and socially mobile society;
- Individual self-sufficiency and personal liberty;
- Ethical and productive discourse and commerce between peoples;
- Justice for all individuals by ensuring and securing freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, freedom of privacy, and enforcing reasonable rehabilitative punishment for individuals when just laws are broken;
- Continuously balancing environmental costs with societal costs; and
- Recognizes and acknowledges human frailty and the influence of emotions when making decisions balanced against our species’ limited place in the Universe
In short, opinions need to facilitate the Foundational Elements and the basis and authority for the assertion of the opinion should be clearly disclosed. Again, I will detail why the Foundational Elements are good, necessary, and beneficial to society in my next post in this series.
Here is a visual of the entire process described.
We have a moral obligation to believe in reason, science, and logic they form the basis by which debates, and thus progress toward solutions to the most challenging issues of our time, take place. Debates can only be resolved by presenting sound arguments with supporting evidence. Stating one’s rights or entitlement to an opinion adds nothing to the debating process, continues to allow individuals to be disillusioned with their own statements, inhibits consensus on facts thus depriving society of the potential human capital gains of that consensus, allows the extrapolation of false conclusions, and can be used as a wedge for tyrannical governments to consolidate and expand their power to supplant the democratic process and splinter the foundation of necessary norms for a well-functioning republic. 33 The entitlement deserves no utterance in our discourse and should only be used in accordance with the limited circumstances and strict adherence to the procedure described above – otherwise, it should be outright rejected.
It seems to be the easiest thing to do to benefit our society is to believe in facts, science, logic, and reason – to constantly be skeptical of ideas and acquiring knowledge, as no major human advancement is devoid of these abilities. Such an ask is not just a way of living but is a means to question those in power and hold them accountable to the truth, which only seeks to insulate our society from the constant threat of tyranny. Simply nothing less can be asked for. The principle “quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur” (“What is freely asserted is freely dismissed”) must be abided by and practiced, and all ideas should have sufficient evidence and be scrutinized by their harm and adoption potential – the alternative should not be tolerated.
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