Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Other aspects of opinion than right and wrong

with 3 comments

I have long been convinced that being right is not the only aspect of opinion that matters: We also have to consider factors like why a certain opinion is held, whether it is “epistemologically sound”, and how willing someone is to reevaluate and (potentially) change it.* For instance, I have repeatedly observed that it is more rewarding to discuss something with someone who has the wrong opinion for a good reason, than with someone who has the right opinion for a poor reason. For instance, the main difference between a good scientist and a poor or non-scientist is not the level of education and experience, but how well they respectively fare in these regards.

*However, people who do poorly in these regards are disproportionately likely to also be (and remain) wrong.

In this, I have largely been driven by my observations of many PC and/or Leftist debaters, takes on religion, various superstitions, etc. People in the relevant groups often score very low on all these criteria: They do not only believe in something which is dubious or even outright and provably wrong—they also hold their beliefs for poor reasons, ignore evidence to the contrary, and refuse to change their opinions no matter what. However, I can also see strong parallels with how my own approach has changed as I went from child to teenager to adult, as well as how my recollections of other children and teenagers stack up to (at least some) adults.*

*Unfortunately, these comparisons usually involve different individuals as representatives for different ages, rather than a longitudinal comparison of the same individuals as they grow older.

Contrast e.g. someone who believes that Evolution is true based on an understanding of the proposed mechanisms, an exposure to fossil records, some knowledge of cladistics, … with someone who believes it “because my school book said so”. Or contrast this again with something truly mindless: “many Republicans are Creationists; I am a Democrat; ergo, I must believe in Evolution”. (This attitude, sadly, does not seem to be as rare as one would hope.) They all have an opinion considered correct by the overwhelming majority of scientists (and me)—but they do so for so different reasons that the one version of the same opinion cannot be considered equal to the other. Notably, it would take a very major change of influence to corrupt the opinion of the first; while the second could be turned merely by having had another book in the curriculum.

If we look at the “why”, which is my main target for this post, I have observed at least four main* categories over the years. In order of descending worthiness**:

*Subdividing these further is possible, but not worthwhile for my current purposes.

**Note that e.g. the question whether an opinion is correct lies in another dimension. It is quite possible to score low here and still have the (factually) right opinion; it is quite possible to score high and still have the wrong opinion.

  1. Opinions that are formed based on own thinking, analysis, observation, experimentation, …

    This typically includes e.g. the activities of many* scientists and philosophers, both professional and amateur.

    *There is no automatism, however: A good scientist should deal with this or the following item, depending on the details of the situation. Regrettably, not all scientists are good; regrettably, a disturbing portion of social scientists fall into the two last categories…

  2. Opinions that are formed through applying critical thinking to claims and reasoning by others.

    (In reality, there will almost always be some overlap with the first item. However, the first item is more likely to deal with using the ideas of others as input for own thoughts; the second with adopting (or not) the ideas of others, after own verification. The first, obviously, contains other aspects with no relation to the second.)

  3. Opinions that are uncritically taken over from a source of authority.

    Such authorities include parents, teachers, celebrities, (real or supposed) experts, books, …

    Note that the difference to the preceding item does not stem from the source (although some sources are better than others)—the main difference is the degree of own thinking and whatnot that is put into the process.

  4. Opinions that are held for reasons like peer pressure, loyalty, a wish to fit in, …

    This includes variations like “I must have the same opinions as my spouse”, “my class-mates all listen to band X; I must do so too”, “I must keep my opinions in line with my party/church/Oprah/…”, and “I must keep my opinions PC”.

    (A related case is those who merely pretend to have a certain opinions, be it for the above reasons or for fear of repercussions, e.g. being sent to a Soviet work-camp or being ostracized. However, this discussion deals with the circumstances around the actual opinions.)

In terms of “epistemological soundness”, in turn, we have to look at questions like whether plausible and logically correct reasoning has been used, whether the conclusions match the known or believed* facts, etc. Cf. the typical differentiation between “knowing” something and merely being “right”.** (I refrain from making a more explicit list, because this area is much more of a continuum.)

*There is no shame in drawing reasonable-but-not-matching-reality conclusions from incorrect premises, if those premises are correspondingly plausible. For instance, Newtonian mechanics is flawed, due to not considering relativistic effects—but it would have been unreasonable to require Newton to address this issue, considering the state of knowledge and the experimental verifiability, within what was measurable at the time, of his mechanics.

**An interesting example in my own history is my first watching of “The Phantom Menace”: I knew that princess Leia was (to be) the daughter of Anakin, I knew that Padme claimed to be sent by queen Amidala, and I just heard the very young Anakin inquire whether Padme was an angel. Factoring in the recurring theme of a prince/princess/king/whatnot pretending to be a commoner, I immediately predicted that a) Padme was actually Amidala, herself, b) she was Leia’s mother. I was highly self-congratulatory as both predictions turned out to be true—and highly annoyed to, later on, find that my reasoning still flew apart on a faulty premise: Leia was not a princess due to her mother’s title, but due to her later adopted parents’.

The willingness to change an opinion, finally, is largely another continuum between those who are willing to make constant adjustments* and those who refuse to change an opinion, no matter what. An additional complication is that a deeply ingrained opinion can take years to change, and that a willingness to be open to changes can need a long cultivation. (I have a longer, half-finished post on related topics that has been lying around a few months. I will try to complete it soon.) The issue can be generalized to how dissenting opinions are treated: Not everyone is content with merely having an opinion set in stone—many go further and actively attack/censor/slander/… those who do not agree with that opinion.

*Strictly speaking, a further division might be needed into why an opinion is changed, and my first draft actually spoke of “in light of new evidence and arguments”. At a later stage, I removed this, seeing that there can be people who are willing to change their opinions, but do so for poor reasons. Whether the openness to change and any given realized change is a good thing, well, that depends on the other points of discussion above. (For instance, in the Evolution example above, switching opinion due to a new school book claiming something different from the old is a poor reason; doing so because it also provides a better analysis or more evidence than the first book is a better reason; doing so after considerable own analysis of known facts and pro and contra arguments is a good reason.)

As an aside, there are other aspects than can be interesting in other contexts, e.g. the degree to which someone actually understands the implications of a given fact (as opposed to merely being aware of the fact it self).


Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2018 at 9:38 pm

3 Responses

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  1. “The willingness to change an opinion, finally, is largely another continuum between those who are willing to make constant adjustments* and those who refuse to change an opinion, no matter what.”

    i agree very strongly with this, and with the post in general. some people are dedicated to their opinions, while others are dedicated to truth and knowledge. sure, opinions happen. we all have them. its all about what we do with them. when other people examine our opinions, we can try to be honest with ourselves. before that even happens, we should have already examined our opinions. dont look a gift horse in the mouth, but with a gift opinion, read its entire medical history– take it for a checkup. go through its things.


    April 15, 2018 at 7:42 pm

  2. […] Another potential sub-category is those that identify some group as fellow travelers, fail to consider the fallacy, and then start to adopt opinions that they “should” have in order to conform further with the fellow travelers, leading themselves astray through committing a second fallacy. (Cf. parts of two older posts: [1], [2]) […]

  3. […] *As in e.g. trying to come up with something on my own, and as opposed to e.g. reading and contemplating someone elses ideas. Cf. the difference between the first two items of an older list/discussion. […]

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