Fact vs opinion

Suppose I was to say to you “Hey, I’ve got a secret! Want to hear it?”

Oh, Christing hellfuck, he’s about to make a bloody point again… you’d probably think. You roll your eyes and wait for it. So I lean in close to tell you, and say: “I have a dragon in my garage.”

“Yeah, sure.” some of you might think. “This is just one of those silly little word play things where it’s a Komodo dragon or the make of a car that’s called a ‘dragon’ or some shitty cop-out like that.” But I assure you, that’s not the case. Not at all. This is a real live beast of myth, legend, and that cool bit of Sucker Punch. It’s a fire-breathing, badass motherfucker. With bizarrely mammalian features for a flying reptile.

Others might say “look, I’ve read my Carl Sagan, too. Stop stealing his bit. Ass.” But just bear with me for this. The garage-dwelling dragon is a powerful point to make. It’s one of those analogies that’s really worth grasping by the balls. Hard.

The more observant may remark that, in fact, I live in a tiny flat and don’t drive, so don’t even have a garage to store a dragon in, so I’m obviously bullshitting you. This is true, good spot. Here’s the interesting twist on that bit, though: I’m not going to ask you to assume, for the sake of argument, that I do own a garage. Know full-well that I do not, nor have I ever, owned, rented, exchanged money or favours (sexual or otherwise) for, a room that could be conceivably called a “garage” by the majority of the English-speaking population, in which one could potentially store a vehicle powered by the principles of the internal combustion engine. Yes, I’m being that specific to ward off any suggestions of fancy wordplay. Allow me to even clarify with a pretty picture:

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So, the challenge is this: evaluate the accuracy and truth value of the statement “I own a dragon, and I keep it in my garage.”

Now, you’d probably say I was wrong. Or that I was mistaken in some way. Or, frankly, that this statement is as close to Zero in truth value as it’s possible to get without trying to breed Bayesian statistics with Knuth’s up-arrow notation. Things that are more likely to be true – indeed, statements that probably must be true in order for me to own a dragon – include the possibility that your senses are deceiving you and you’re actually in an elaborate computer simulated hoax of my design, and that in the real reality you’re a womble.

In short, you would think I was crazy to assert ownership of such a creature.

But what if I preceded it with “I think that…” or “in my opinion…”? Suppose instead of being so up-front about it, I hedge my bets on factual accuracy instead suggest “I think that I have a dragon in my garage and that’s my opinion”. What then?

You clearly still wouldn’t think I was right. You wouldn’t think my “opinion” or “thought” was valid. Perhaps (well, probably) you would tut, nod, and know inside that I was wrong and just be too damn polite about it. But you definitely wouldn’t concede the truth value of the statement. That would still be close to Zero. After all, you know fine well that I don’t even own a fucking garage to keep the damn thing in. You know for a fact that this isn’t even a debate worth having.

If you didn’t think that, then you’d have to almost certainly evaluate your views on mental health. Not just with respect to those institutionalised because they’re under the impression that they’re dead, but whether it’s right to treat people with extreme depression. As, wouldn’t you agree, they also posses the perfectly valid opinion is that they’re worthless, and that they should kill themselves right now as the world would be better off without them. You’d almost certainly want to reconsider your respect for the opinion (Godwin Alert!) Adolf Hitler and Company had of Jews and disabled people, and their opinion that the world would be better off without them.

The reason you’d still assume I was mad to say that I thought I owned a garage-dwelling dragon, and not immediately bow down in reverence to my opinion on the matter, is that you’d recognise that simply adding “I think” didn’t really change what I was saying. What I’m asserting is true about the world is no different thanks to the words “I think that” stuck in front.

Simply stating “I own a dragon” already makes the presumption that I think I own one, and that I hold the belief in my head that I do. Otherwise I simply wouldn’t say it in the first place.

It’s my opinion that the sky is blue in the day time (although tending towards a reddish-orange at sunset/sunrise), and it’s certainly my belief that the sky is blue. I act according to that belief, and expect the world to also function accordingly; for example, in having photographs of a clear daytime sky in which it is clearly a light shade of blue. Should the sky appear green and stripy, or develop pink polka dots one day, I will act in a most surprised fashion at the sudden clash of belief and reality. No one points out that this sort of thing is their belief, thought or opinion, however, simply because such a thing is hardly controversial. It doesn’t need stating that you posses this as a “belief”, even though you do posses a belief. A “belief”, in this case, being any at-least-vaguely-coherent set of thoughts in your head.

Yet so often you might see someone state an opinion, and have it respected even though it’s clearly as disprovable as it was as if it were simply “stated” as fact. Prefixing it with “I think that” treats this fragment as something akin to a magic word. It’s magic because somehow it changes everything, even though it really doesn’t change anything.

It’s as if I could say “all blacks are homophobes” and people would rush to attack me as speaking false – but if I say “abracadabra, all blacks are homophobes” and then see people respond with a resounding chorus of how entitled I was to hold such an opinion. In reality, the central claim itself hasn’t changed. Or perhaps it’s like picking something up in a shop, running outside and setting off the security alarms, and then turning and saying “lol, j/k, I didn’t really steal this!!!1”. Or – and this is something that really fucking irks me – pirating some music or film, putting it up on PooTube, and putting “no copyright intended.” in the description. That’s not even fucking wrong! In reality, those acts haven’t changed, even though someone declares them to have been.

Actual thoughts and actual actions don’t change thanks to magic words.

Now, you might just think that any educated person can spot the difference between fact and opinion in this sort of way and so the above is just unnecessary. It gets drummed into you at school if you’ve ever done History or English or Media Studies; the way people can spin an opinion of theirs into a fact is taught quite rigorously. It all leaves us with a healthy cynicism towards certain types of claims people make. “This man is evil!” says one source. “No, this man is good!” says the other source. Both are opinions being stated as facts, and so the fallacy is easy to spot. This is a Good Thing. I won’t decry the fact that people take such assertions of truth bullshit with a pinch or seven of salt.

But it does mean we don’t as easily recognise this happening the other way around; people hiding facts – more specifically, things that can be tested as if they were facts – as opinions. Mostly because we want to avoid the spin that school has taught us to have a healthy cynicism for, we mistake people adding magic words to their blind and bold drivelling assertions as a sign of legitimacy.

“Did they say ‘I think that’ before they said it? Oh, that’s fine then”.

Nothing has changed about the assertion. The only thing that has changed is that we think opinions don’t need to be amenable and answerable to evidence. We should respect opinions. We can agree to disagree over an opinion. Or, let’s be more precise, we should respect things labelled as opinions. And this simple labelling of something as “opinion” is why adding a magic word doesn’t change anything. Adding the label “religion” to Jedi isn’t going to change the fact that it started as a bunch of Star Wars fans taking the piss. Adding the label “opinion” doesn’t exempt it from scrutiny or outright and frank accusations of bullshitting and being emphatically wrong.

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The factual accuracy of a statement doesn’t change upon addition of a label; and so the respect that a statement should get, or the free ride it gets when we compare it to evidence, shouldn’t change either. If I make a statement about reality, that statement should be validated, or not, on the basis of reality. Magic words don’t create that exemption that bullshit merchants crave. Even if those magic words are “in my opinion”.

In its most acceptable form, “in my opinion” could mean “to the best of my current knowledge”. But then the same thing still applies; failure to update your views on the basis of evidence and demonstrable fact constitutes wilful ignorance. I have no problem with the ignorant, just with the people who actively want to stay that way. Fuck those people, and fuck their not-opinions.

This isn’t limited to silly little spats where someone says something wrong but sticks by it no matter what. The widespread resistance to evidence-based policy within government is entirely due to this fallacy being ramped up to eleven. The line of thinking is “If I’m presenting an opinion, I’m not making a statement about reality, so I don’t need evidence” – except this is bullshit. Policy is all about the evidence. You’re making decisions that will have an effect on the world. You need to be able to match up the actual effect of a decision with the intended effect of a decision. That’s the very definition of evidence, and it’s central to policy making. If assessing your policy or “opinion” has nothing to do with this approach in the slightest, then what fucking good is it?

If you’re going say “this action will improve the economy”, that’s testable (providing you define “improve” sufficiently). If you say “this alternative medicine will cure cancer”, that’s testable (because if 50 people receiving the treatment don’t do better than 50 people not receiving it, it just doesn’t work). If you say “the global climate isn’t really being affected by anthropogenic activity”, that’s testable (we have trends, data and statistics to play with). How many more examples are there? If you say “allowing same-sex marriage will destroy the sanctity of traditional marriage”… again, testable! Just allow it and see what happens. It’s easy.

So, in future, my response to most things masquerading as “opinion” isn’t going to be “well, I respect that”, it’s going to be “Go on. Prove it. Put your money where your mouth is. I fucking dare you.”

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