In the classic Dirty Harry movie series, the crusty old detective, Harry Callahan, makes a quip that echoes back to the pre-Socratics: “Opinions are like assholes; everybody has one.”
In his own way, Harry’s character reminds us of that ancient and very important distinction between opinion and knowledge. Opinion requires little to no evidence to utter — faith even less so. Knowledge claims, at the other end of the truth-meter, have robust reasons and solid evidence to back them up.
Without this basic and fundamental understanding of how to sort through declarations, our world is now overrun by opinions masquerading as facts. As a result, poorly supported assertions of faith and opinion end up forging public policy — all which have a direct effect on our individual and collective well-being.
Poorly supported assertions of faith and opinion end up forging public policy.
Look no farther than the U.S. It’s the culmination of the Trump Effect. “Fake news.” Denying bold-faced facts. Brushing aside serious science in place of one’s own uneducated version of reality.
But don’t forget that sloppy thinking doesn’t stop at borders. The same anti-intellectualism is rife in our own mainstream Canadian politics and media venues.
Consider the reaction to recent remarks from the newly appointed governor general, Julie Payette, at no less a venue than the Canadian Science Policy Convention in Ottawa. It illustrates to what extent critical distinctions and tough-minded demands for reason have been lost on so many of us, and society in general.
Speaking to the audience, Ms. Payette did a riff on the most popular of opinions warmly held close by too many, including those in our echelons of political power:
“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period?”
“And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone — oh my goodness, a random process.”
Could there be more examples? Unfortunately, yes. How about adding pseudo-medicine and astrology to the list?
Now, if you do a simple search of this event, and read the outrage by those like Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Rex Murphy, you see what happens once you abandon the world of evidence and reason.
Here are the most favoured of responses:
- The go-to of modern culture — shut down things we don’t like to hear. Be outraged. Have a hissy fit. Try to whip up drama like 12-year-olds on a school playground. Just make sure you avoid the question: Is it true?
- If that doesn’t quite do it, double down on the outrage because it — your sensitivities about “The Unquestionable” — is being questioned. (Typically being some claim of religion or any of its New Age variants.) Start the comeback by returning to 1): “How dare you …”
- In step 3), keep to 2), backed by 1), then misquote and overly embellish what was originally asserted. It’s the old, tried but true “straw man” approach. That is, misrepresent what’s being claimed, as it’s then so much more easily shown to be outrageous.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the various tantrums over Ms. Payette’s speech is how detractors, like Scheer and Murphy, think it’s Payette who is offering mere opinion about these topics. As Murphy wonders, how could she “seek to place herself as an umpire or judge on questions of faith?”
Therein lies one of the exact, terrible confusions at stake: Payette wasn’t saying this list was the result of her own research. Whether it’s the reality of anthropogenic climate change; the task of explaining the origin of life; how disease shouldn’t be treated; how astrology doesn’t work: this isn’t a matter of her personal inquiry into the issues.
It’s what scientific research does. The collaborative results, indeed, aren’t a matter of any scientist’s opinion. It’s based on a majority of peer-reviewed research and, as such, gets us as close to the ideals of truth, fact and knowledge as we can get in this earthly world.
Don’t forget how far those like Murphy and Scheer have gone in their defence of the indefensible. It’s not about saying, “Well, sure, their views aren’t based on facts, but they have a right to their opinion.” It’s gone one step further down the epistemic sinkhole: We are not even allowed to talk about the differences between facts and opinionated nonsense — even at a conference on science and policy.
So, to answer CBC’s Robyn Urback, where she asks: “In what universe is it appropriate for a governor general to deride people for their beliefs?” It’s simple, Robyn: In a universe where there’s still a difference between opinions and facts.
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Author: G. Elijah Dann