This post is mostly for my own benefit, feel free to skip over it if you’re not interested in my dusty brain’s internal gear grindings. As I’ve been researching the current state of the biotech debate for my next two books, I’ve run up against a broad cultural trend that should provide me some good material for future Reprobates Hour episodes (I’m currently prepping Season 3 – – but more on that later).
I don’t think that we live in an information society. Although we have unprecedented access to information thanks to the internet, the primary effect has been the commodification of opinion, rather than of information. I think that, moreso than before, we live in an opinion society. As much as we are individuals, humans are hierarchy-driven primates – to some extent, we are all pack animals. Because of this, most people tend to think along party lines, whether it be political party, philosohpical or religious tradition, acivist community, or filial or fraternal group. Postmodernist intellectual laziness, in the guise of identity politics and epistemological relativism, reinforces this. It seems to permeate far enough down into the cultural fabric that pretty much any kind of sloppy thinking can be justified with an airy wave of the hand and a “Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.”
Entitled? Really? It would be folly not to acknowledge that everyone has an opinion, but I see no reason to hold that reality as an entitlement. Everyone, after all, also has two arms. Does that mean they are entitled to their arms? Or does it merely mean that they possess them and will continue to do so, barring an unfortunate encounter with farm equipment, Sharia law enforcement officials, industrial presses, or auto accidents? I tend to think the latter. By analogy: evidence, argument, experience, and relationships are the analogous forces capable of ripping our opinions from us and leaving a bloody stump. Most people seem to understand this implicitly, as they tend to want to smuggle opinions into the “fact” category to render them immune from criticism.
Formal reasoning isn’t a required course anymore in either high school or most colleges, and common sense can only get you so far, and when it fails, well…let’s just say that most people have a pretty shady understanding of what an opinion is and how much weight it actually carries. Not all opinions are created equal. An initial reaction is qualitatively different from a conclusion (which is an opinion based upon exposure to information and/or argument, and is subject to correction in light of further evidence). So, to bring us back to first principles, I present two distortions of the foregoing maxim:
“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant. â€” Harlan Ellison
You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts. â€“ Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
In other words, as far as Ellison is concerned, if something is worth believing, it’s worth being well informed about. While people who hold stubbornly to opinions in the face of contrary evidence or in the darkness of ignorance are being merely human, they aren’t being terribly adult. But Moynihan is also on to something. People do have a tendency to smuggle their opinions in as facts, or fail to distinguish between the two. This gets particularly thorny in matters of ethics or of public policy.
Below is an incomplete list of “facts” that aren’t. Some are conclusions, some are scare tactics, some are opinions, some are outright lies, and some are misapprehensions. In the forthcoming months, I plan to do some essays on these or other points, so if you guys have any favorites or some good ones I’ve missed, leave them in the comments section or email me at dan at jdsawyer.net. This should prove fun!
Overpopulation will cause widepsread famine and end civilization.
We are at the tipping point for runaway global warming that will decimate the biosphere.
The Bible is (in some sense) inerrant.
Sexual immorality caused (or significantly contributed to) the fall of the Roman Empire.
Republicans are waging a war on science.
Democrats are waging a war on science.
The Bildeberg Group/Illuminati/Freemasons/etc. control the world economy.
Evolution is a theory in crisis.
Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis.
The design of the universe testifies to the existence of a God.
Modern “allopathic” medicine treats symptoms instead of causes.
Organic food is more healthy and/or more environmentally friendly than factory farmed food.
Having oral sex with an HIV positive person puts you at risk for contracting AIDS.
Religious folks are more bigoted than non-religious folks.
Conservatives are more sexually repressed than liberals.
Nuclear power is dangerous.
Abstinence followed by Monogamy is the only reliable way to prevent STDs.
The world is running out of oil, and when we run out civilization will grind to a halt.
All consensual sex is good for you.
Sex outside marriage is immoral.
Rent controls keep the cost of living down and prevent gentrification.
Abortion is murder.
Embryonic stem cell research kills babies who would otherwise have been born.
Feminists believe that all sex is rape.
AIDS is a clear and present danger to everyone.
Free loving people (polyamorists, swingers, and the promiscuous) have more sex than monogamous people.
Illegal drugs are all bad for you.
Cuban citizens have better health care than most Americans.
Politics and science are entirely separate disciplines and should not mix.
The world would be a better place if scientists dictated public policy.
There are a few more, I’ll probably add to the list as I go along – but keep in mind:
Without exception, EVERY ONE of those statements is a lie, a distortion, a misapprehension, or an opinion falsely cast as fact. Almost everyone in the U.S. believes one or more of them enough to vote with them in mind – either at the ballot box or with their wallets.
It’s gonna be fun writing these essays in between other projects.