Everyone has opinions, that’s not a problem. In fact, it is positive and desirable that each person forms their own opinions. The problem is that we express opinions without knowing. Without delving. Without experience. Without evidence. Without thinking…
We express opinions for the sake of doing so. And then we demand that those opinions are as valuable and worthy of being taken into account as those of who do have experience in the matter. Those who have gone deep. Those who have taken the trouble to argue with data, facts and logic.
We should only express opinions on what we can defend
“Every individual has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; This right includes the right not to be harassed because of their opinions, to investigate and receive information and opinions, and to spread them, without limitation of borders, by any means of expression”, indicates article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, most people get stuck on the first line, ignoring a crucial phrase: “investigate and receive information and opinions.” The Australian philosopher Patrick Stokes starts precisely from this point to affirm that in his classes at Deakin University no one has the right to an opinion, unless he is capable of defending his position. In this way, he tries to teach his students to build and defend an argument, as well as to recognize when a belief has become indefensible and it is time to give in.
Stokes points out that too often thinking that “We have the right to express our opinion freely” becomes an excuse for not recognizing that we have been wrong or even for clinging to beliefs that cannot withstand the onslaught of reality or logic. In practice, it becomes an abbreviation for “I can say or think what I want without anyone daring to refute it.”
Deep down, this attitude feeds a false equivalence between experts and ignorant people, between those who have dedicated their entire lives to studying the “Dragonflies of Cochinchina” and those who have briefly read about them on Wikipedia or on some other page of dubious reliability.
Obviously, this false equivalence is increasingly pernicious in public discourse, especially in turbulent times marked by uncertainty, when trust in conventional systems is crumbling and new “truths” are sought to cling to and gurus to follow.
Giving an opinion is a right, but… what exactly is an opinion?
Heraclitus distinguished between opinion or doxa – that which we take for granted but which we have never questioned and deep down we are unable to explain – and knowledge. Knowledge is knowing that “1+1=2” or that “there are no square circles”. On the other hand, opinions usually contain a fairly high degree of subjectivity and uncertainty.
Opinion is somewhere in the middle between our knowledge and beliefs we have formed about the world and our expectations, preferences and desires, always conditioned by our unique point of view.
It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.
If we are not experts in a subject, it is common for us to express a belief as an opinion. We could say: “I think solar energy is cheaper than hydroelectric energy”. But often we also make the mistake of expressing our tastes as opinions, for example: “I think chocolate is better than strawberry”.
The problem, obviously, lies in using the concept of “opinion” to describe two statements that do not start from the same assumptions. That is the recipe for conflict and to fall into the most total and absurd relativism.
We can disagree about beliefs and knowledge by providing data, research and reasons. However, we cannot argue about preferences. If someone prefers chocolate to strawberry, there is nothing wrong or debatable about it. There is simply nothing to say.
The problem begins when people express their preferences, expectations or illusions in the form of “opinions” and confuse them with facts. In these cases, the argument of the “right to give an opinion” is put forward, which often leads to equating the opinions of ignorants with the logic and reasons of the experts.
The right to dismiss opinions
Opinions on all kinds of issues abound today. Internet access has allowed everyone to become a specialist in pandemics, politics, sports, natural disasters, economics, medicine or psychology. Undoubtedly, it is important that everyone forms an opinion about the future of the world and events, but that does not mean pretending that this opinion is the absolute truth and assuming that everyone else is wrong.
A fact is supported by data and evidence while opinion is a personal expression of our feelings or thoughts, which may or may not be based on data. In fact, many of our opinions are based on emotions, personal experiences and values.
Therefore, the phrase “to express an opinion is a right” means that no one can prevent us from saying what we think. No one should stop someone from saying that the earth is flat and stands on huge turtles.
However, the “right to express an opinion” does not mean that these points of view should be treated as serious candidates for the “truth” or ideas that can become part of the collective knowledge. Everyone can express their opinion, but that does not necessarily mean that their opinions are valid or valuable, despite what may say the “opinionists” who proliferate everywhere.
Therefore, the next time we meet someone who uses the “right to express an opinion” as the only argument to defend their ideas, it would be interesting to ask them why they think their opinion is valuable, instead of immersing ourselves in a sterile debate about their tastes, experiences or values.
And the next time we are tempted to give an opinion on something we do not know well, we should remember the words of Leonardo da Vinci: “The greatest deception that men suffer is his own opinion”. It is better to listen, read, learn and reflect than to go around the world disguised as evangelizing “opinionists”.
Stokes, P. (2014) No, You’re Not Entitled To Your Opinion. In: IFL Science.
Chong, D. (1993) How People Think, Reason, and Feel about Rights and Liberties. American Journal of Political Science; 37(3): 867-899.