This feels like it shouldn’t have to be said. Opinions are not the same as facts and no your opinion is not by default just as valid as anyone else’s.
People are allowed to express their opinions in a free and just society, our laws and society protect the person from imprisonment and violence from expressing those opinions. What our laws do not guarantee is that people are going to agree with you. In a functioning society, we accept these as the rules that govern the debate of issues from the most trivial, Taylor Swift’s new song, to who should be the next leader of the free world. Recently, I have gotten into a bit of a struggle with my council over their opinion to enforce their entitlement on a contractual obligation that we made with absolutely no evidence to support this opinion. The result is me arguing with the entire community on the value of opinions and it got me thinking, this level of entitlement is why our Village, Province, Country and World is so absolutely fucked.
Opinions are not Facts
The rest of my blog post won’t make any sense to you if we don’t hold some similar truths to be unquestionable:
- There are two kinds of opinions informed and uninformed
- An Uninformed Opinion Cannot Withstand the Scrutiny of an Informed Criticism
- The more influence you have on a decision, the higher the responsibility you have to ensure facts support your opinion
- Opinions are not Facts
- Finally, you can disagree with someone’s opinion and still respect them
I don’t think there is anything too objectionable in that list. I would assume that we can view these items as our guideposts going forward.
Informed and Uninformed Opinions
So this is likely the biggest issue that my tiny spat with my village council has uncovered. According to our agreed upon truths, there are two kinds of opinions, informed and uninformed. There are a lot of ways that someone can be informed about a topic and provide valuable input, they can be experts in the subject, they can research the facts of the particular situation and bring together usable data to formulate an opinion, they can seek input from those “in-the-know” or they can be privy to information not generally available (similar to being an expert in the sense that you know things the bulk of the population does not).
This pertains to decisions made on a political stage and within a business. In your role as a decision maker, you should value informed opinions more than uninformed opinions.
If you have ever run an event or a restaurant/bar or even been to an event, restaurant or bar, you know what I mean. You can look at a menu and say, “Jeez they’d make a lot more money if they lowered their prices, or added item x to the menu.” You might think you have an informed opinion, because well you’ve been to restaurants and bars, but most likely the case is that you have zero understanding of the overhead required for the syrup used for the fountain pop, the cost of their liability insurance and the staff. And that’s why when you tell Joey from Joey’s pub what he should do to “really succeed” he will more than likely nod politely and forget your comment as soon as he walks away. And, rightfully so.
The More Influence You Have On a Decision, the Higher the Responsibility You Have to Ensure Facts Support Your Opinion.
I am a new father, Jack is adorable and doing great. In fact, last night he slept from midnight to 7:00 am. Mallory and I both woke up with a startled realization but he was fine just snoozing along.
That was a bit of a digression but the point is that there are a lot of surprises that come with having a kid and whether you are currently raising your own, finished raising yours or never have or will ever have kids, you have an opinion. So being first-time parents, we got steady streams of advice from everything from our dogs to how to clean poop off of his back. But you many of you can relate that when you receive this often unsolicited advice your brain automatically runs it through the following filtering questions:
- How reliable is the source?
- Am I aware of any supporting evidence for this advice?
- What is the level of impact of taking this advice?
The more critical the implications of this advice, the less likely you are to take it at face value. In today’s world, you’ll likely start by googling it, and if that passes then you will probably ask another more reliable source for confirmation, then finally you may even seek the advice of a physician. The last step would have been the first step before our devolution into overestimating the value of our own opinions. That’s why they call it a medical opinion, and there is a reason only doctors can give them.
In the political world, the decisions of elected officials should be made based on the advice they get from a small selection of trusted advisors and compatriots. This advice is derived by analyzing hard empirical data, working with experts in the field, searching for precedent and comparable examples, and lastly looking at opinion polls.
At the Municipal level, especially in small communities like mine, this process is challenging. The barriers between the elected and the electorate are blurred to an almost indistinguishable level. Everyone has the potential to catch the ear of a councillor or mayor and thus their opinion has the opportunity to influence decisions regardless of the objective strength of said opinion.
In summation of this point, I will leave you with an analogy, and you can tell me in which case you would accept and in which case you disregard the opinion, provided in both cases:
My childless uncle is a retired chemistry teacher and well-respected man. He informs me that despite the research I have done, the reviews I’ve read and side by side comparisons I have done, I have purchased the wrong car seat for Jack, he says that he took a quick look at it and his gut feeling is that he would get a different model.
I am thinking of planting a garden in my backyard to grow fresh vegetables for Jack and Mallory. My same Uncle approaches me and tells me where I should build the garden and what fertilizer and seeds to plant. I have done a similar level of online research on this topic and had a different plan. He notes his experience growing up on a farm and his background in chemistry in regards to soil ph.
The fact is that my uncle is considered very intelligent and would not offer an opinion that he did feel was worth consideration. But the chances are that you agree with me that his opinion in Scenario 1 would be the easiest to disregard, and even a bit irresponsible. Given that he is a trusted figure in my life and this is my child’s life in the balance. In situations where there are substantial stakes offering an uninformed opinion to someone whom you can exact influence over can have substantial negative consequences.
In Scenario 2, even though I have done research that may contradict his opinion, the lower stakes and my trust in his expertise in both chemistry and farming makes me far more comfortable in accepting his opinion and implementing it. In this scenario even if the stakes were higher Reg would have had a better chance or influencing my decision because he is a perceived expert in the subject and his attempts to influence my choice would be both more welcome and responsible.
Regardless of Reg’s level of culpability in any scenario, the final decision rests with me. So I am right to scrutinize his assertion about my selection of car seat, because the stakes are high and I have no reason to believe that his opinion provides any kind of expert insight. In scenario 2, I may have plans for the other side of my yard, but I would be foolish to dismiss his expertise and opinion outright. As the decision maker in your own life you are going to be influenced in so many ways, from what beer to buy, well that commercial made this beer look delicious, to who to vote for.
When you are in a position of influence you have a responsibility to the person you’re influencing as well as to the impact that decision could have on extended people.
An Uninformed Opinion Cannot Withstand the Scrutiny of an Informed Criticism
I don’t know about you but I always thought the metaphor of a forge was a great one for public policy and opinions. Good policy and good opinions are made like good steel, through fire, heat and pressure. The only thing that can fuel the fire is facts. Being loud and having “a right to an opinion” is like jimmying the valve on your Bic lighter to make a huge flame. Sure, it’s gonna send up a big flame, but it will last about have the time and burn with more light but a lot less heat.
If you don’t like the metaphor route, your opinion based on your gut, or your feelings are about as useful as an empty Bic lighter. Now, as humans, we all suffer from the confirmation bias, which is that when seeking out information on a topic, we will always seek out information that supports our presumption on the subject. But hey at least that’s something, understanding that the person on the other side of the argument is doing the same, all we need is the humility to let our opinion go, which is a level of enlightenment that is hard to obtain. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be sought out.
Opinions are not Facts
I am not writing an explanation for this one, if someone presents you with empirical data about something you are not allowed to disregard it because it doesn’t fit your opinion.
You Can Disagree with Someone and Still Respect Them
I can be a bit of an asshole. I question almost everyone and everything; it can make me a chore to hang out with; however, it also makes me a heck of a businessman and elected official. I question everything; I assume that everyone will challenge me. Secretly, I want them to.
I respect those who can do it and do it well. On council, I have had some blistering exchanges with the Mayor and some I have won and some of which I have gotten slapped around. But I respect him because he either brings his arguments forward with stories of experience or information provided by reliable sources. What I have a much harder time respecting is those who feel they do not have to support their opinions with evidence and facts.
Now I would assume that you like me believe that people should receive equal pay for equal work. I am assuming that you said yes. You would hate it if your co-worker slept in the staff room couch all day and not only was given equal pay but lauded for their revolutionary approach to work. In a debate at council, parliament and in public giving an uninformed and baseless opinion and presenting it with the same value as a well thought out and researched argument is the same as your favourite couch sleeping co-worker being given the same raise as you, while you toil to keep the company afloat.
Dear reader, if you have gotten this far you either agree with me, or you disagree with me so much that you wanted to make sure that you went through the entire document to make sure you didn’t miss one argument to dissect. Either way, thank you. It is that level of commitment that transcends the realm of Facebook rants into the echelon of proper political and philosophical discourse.
The damage that can be done from the proliferation of entitled opinions has led to some of the worse decisions our societies have ever made. It’s the reason fake news gets spread; it’s the reason those logical decisions are tossed aside for ones that make you feel good. We are all emotional creatures, and it can hurt to hear that our opinions do not have value just because they are ours, but when the chips are down, and you have to make a choice that will determine the future of your town, province or country, do you want it based on opinion or facts?
Spoiler alert: Most people will still choose opinion.