How do we handle ‘opinions’? Everyone seems to have them. Indeed, even here I’m giving my opinion about opinions. It’s a never-ending battle of everyone having an opinion and those who complain about everyone having an opinion, often not realising that they’re doing the very thing the are complaining about. Anyway, perhaps a way to do it is just to get back to what we want to see inherently in all good arguments and viewpoints: soundness, quality, consistency, evidence and so on. But of course this has other implications.
Everyone’s got an opinion. But what should concern us is whether these opinions are worthwhile or not. When news channels obtain soundbites from random pedestrians, it’s perhaps meant to convey a sense of fairness or engagement: “Look,” says the media, “we care what you think.” As Charlie Brooker, for example, has pointed out, the media (a horribly broad term, I realise) is now often dictated by the public, driven by demand and is now no different to any other type of product in the world, driven by consumer demand. The difficulty though is trying to figure out what isn’t driven by those who will pay for it.
Ideally, for example, we would want something like medicine catering to the biggest areas of diseases and so on – but as has been highlighted in recent papers on biomedical ethics, research into diseases that effect mostly Third World countries are not lucrative for so-called Big Pharma. There is evidence to support this thesis, but not enough for us to think in conspiracy theory tones. Furthermore there are shades of grey depending how we define “interest”. Anyway, what I’m focused on now is how to balance this idea of “opinion”.
The Web has allowed nobodies like me to voice their “opinion” on almost all matters. Many who are capable of putting words coherently after each other can voice their political, religious, economic, and other views to rage against the dying light of expertise. No longer is it the case that we focus on expert opinion on matters; now we can read others who perhaps are more eloquent but lacking in intellectual substance. The danger of ignoring Joe Blogs from voicing his opinion is that we only hear from Prof. Expert who may be wrong. Plenty of experts in various fields have voiced views that aligned themselves to shady political agendas – everything from apartheid or racist policies to even concessions on recent, important positions in a Third World Country. Joe Blogs and friends might be the voice of a minority ignored, the group history will applaud as heroes, liberators and defenders of justice, truth and other important-sounding words.
History, as ever, is a guide. We can’t and should not ignore opinions from a diverse range. However, what should matter is the quality of the opinion. The major element of expert opinion is not that it’s said by experts, but that it is, in itself, a sound, logical, evidence-backed opinion.
‘Opinion’ like ‘killing’ needs to be understood as a neutral term: If we read a headline that says someone “has been killed”, this doesn’t tell us whether it was good or bad. In cases of justified euthanasia, someone is killed but it is not bad (it is actually good). Similarly, someone having an opinion is meaningless unless we know whether it’s a good or bad opinion. And we can judge a good or bad opinion by merits like soundness, consistency, logical flow, evidence and so on. That is, properties that constitute good reasons to believe. (This also means when someone responds with the phrase “That’s your opinion” he might as well be saying “You have a belly-button” for all the argumentative power the phrase holds holds.)
We do expect experts to automatically have ‘good’ opinions, but perhaps we should be rescinding from this automatic assumption given what history and the present confirm: that experts can be and are sometimes wrong. I don’t think we should give weight automatically to ‘expert’ opinions anymore. Just because someone is, say, a highly-regarded medical doctor doesn’t mean he has anything good arguments when debating evolution. Unfortunately, many people think obtaining a PhD or having “doctor” before your name grants you some automatic intellectual licence to speak on all matters. This is, of course, nonsense. The only intellectuals who can legitimately speak on nearly all matters with consistently good arguments are philosophers, of course (I’m kidding, by the way). But, the point is I think we should stop looking for ‘expert’ opinion, unless we can agree that an ‘expert’ opinion means a ‘good argument’ (or view). And that means almost anyone can have them.
If almost anyone can have them, then calling these ‘expert’ opinions seems to undermine the idea of experts (which would upset someone like my beloved Platonic Socrates). So I think for now, we should all strive to have good arguments and not adhere immediately to expert opinions. This also helps to lower our immediate concession to those we regard highly as being automatically brilliant in their arguments; that is, it means we can disagree with those we respect because we are disagreeing with their arguments even if we think they are brilliant men and women.
The question then becomes: If using the term ‘expert opinion’ seems unhelpful, should we use it at all? I’m not sure but I’ve outlined why I think we should at least be sceptical of it and why we should rather use the idea of good and bad arguments – because this can be held by anyone.
When it comes to things that legitimately require expert views, things become more complicated. For example, I could not begin to comment on anything Stephen Hawking says, but there are people who disagree with him. Who should we listen to? It seems to me, then, that it remains the job of the expert to make a good argument in as clear a way as possible and up to us, as inquirers, to obtain as much information as possible to meet him halfway. This is still difficult, but as Jethro Tull remind us, nothing is easy.
This doesn’t undermine my point so much as, I think, reinforce it. Here, too, we are not immediately just resorting to a view because Stephen Hawking says so and we are ignorant of deep physics. We are holding back our view to say something like “I need more information” or “I don’t understand it enough to firmly stand on either side [assuming there’s only two sides”.
And, frankly, I would rather more of us did say this sort of thing more often. I’m tired of people voicing their views on issues just because they’ve heard it from an expert or from someone with a silver tongue. A five minute probe into eloquent disquisitions can usually open up barely covered wounds of ignorance. This doesn’t make us better or smarter, only more careful. Our interlocutors may very well be right, without realising how their parroted views do overcome the criticisms we laid at their feet. But the point is, even so, it is still up to us, individually, to adhere to sound arguments, careful reasoning and not to be merely receptors to expert opinion without first wondering whether it is, most importantly, a good sound view in the first place. We don’t have time, of course; we can’t always take time out to say whether the research is true or good or well-done in some obscure investigation into an area of medicine we know nothing about. We are human. I understand. But where we can, we ought to do so and I think there are more areas where we can than we realise. When we begin our differentiation, I think we’ll see more of those areas come to light, instead of lumping all things expert into the field of all things validated.
Update (19.11.2011): You almost don’t need to read my post because Jacques Rousseau has written two excellent pieces on this matter. Of course, you’ll notice I put this at the end of the post because I’m sneaky. Also, The Daily Maverick also has some of the best online comments I’ve seen on any website, in terms of clarity and intelligence.