Are You Entitled To Your Opinion?

Cassandra, a Design Mom Reader, shared the link to this article in our discussion about How to Be a Responsible Publisher. I found it really helpful as I navigate discussions on free-speech and opinions and “covering both sides” and online conversations. I’ve found myself coming back to it over and over again.

The article talks about how saying, “Well, I’m entitled to my opinion,” can really shut down a conversation:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.

And then it explains there are 3 different categories of opinions:

“Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from 1) tastes or preferences, through 2) views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to 3) views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.”

It goes on to discuss that obviously, everyone is equally entitled to opinions on taste. It would be silly to argue with someone that their favorite color should be green instead of blue, or to argue with me that I should like cilantro. But everyone is not equally entitled to opinions in the other two categories. Research, data, and expertise can give more weight to views and opinions, and those weighted opinions should get more attention — and media air time — than unweighted opinions:

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

Here’s why I like the article:

1) It was written in 2012. The date probably shouldn’t matter to me so much, but it does. Because it means it was written before anyone was tossing around the phrase #fakenews. And also because it wasn’t written in reaction to our current political situation at all. As a reader, I don’t have to consider if the author is pro-Trump or anti-Trump or if he has a hidden agenda.

2) It was written by a philosophy professor. He approaches the topic with logic, and doesn’t focus on emotion. Ben Blair’s area of study is also philosophy and he’s able to do this too — approach a topic more logically than emotionally, and I always appreciate that when I know my own opinions are clouded.

3) It’s short, to the point, and instructive. The example he uses, of the woman who wants to publicly advocate against vaccination, but has no expertise to back up her views, was really helpful to me. In the last four paragraphs, he writes about how the anti-vax groups felt she was being censored: 

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

If you get a chance to read the article, I’d love to hear your thoughts. After reading it several times, I’ve been observing news coverage differently. If 95% percent of scientists agree that global warming is man made and very real, do we need to cover “both sides” and hear from someone who thinks the opposite? What if the person who thinks the opposite is a scientist too, does that change things? Do you agree that people get offended if you continue to argue once they’ve declared “they are entitled to their opinion”?

In addition to global warming and vaccinations, what are other examples where you see opinions being given attention that are far out of the expert/researched realm?

P.S. — Remember these Sheet Pan Tacos?

37 thoughts on “Are You Entitled To Your Opinion?”

  1. Global warming, vaccinations…and whether gun restrictions have any influence on reduction of gun violence. Facts don’t seem to hold much sway with NRA members.

  2. As Americans we live with a shocking amount of myths that get all kinds of media attention. Myths like the mentally ill are dangerous (fact: the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crime than purpetrators), that black and brown fathers are absent (fact: the research shows they are actually MORE likely to be involved parents), and that capital punishment prevents crime (fact: crime prevention that actually works in observable amounts almost always includes some kind of social intervention such as job training and conflict mediation – see several developed countries that do not use capital punishment at nearly the rates we do and yet have lower crime rates). Getting the power of reliable, science-supported research past the myths can be incredibly challenging.

  3. As a physician, I also find that most people don’t know how to interpret data. So, someone can site a study or statistic supporting one of these myths and it is weighed equally with data from the other side. Study data can be sliced and diced to show just about anything. BUT if you drill down and assess the quality of the data the difference often becomes clear. I didn’t learn to assess a scientific study until medical school, but I would argue we should be teaching this skills to everyone and much earlier. An understanding of terms like absolute and relative risk reduction and the difference between statistical significance and and clinical or real life significance would benefit any news/data consumer, not just those of us in science or analytics.

    1. So true, Gillian! Just the other day a friend touted a 5th grade science fair experiment as “proof” essential oils are better than typical household cleaners. Repeatability? Peer reviewed? Nah….

  4. I think the internet is a breeding ground for unfounded opinions. I’ve been shocked since leaving school, where evidence based decision making is the name of the game, to find how often people distrust the opinions and suggestions of the medical establishment especially. Among the Facebook mom community, and my newly acquired mom community in person, antivaxxers are just the most obvious form of insidious internet-sourced (not scientifically sourced) knowledge. “Toxic” sunscreen, essential oils as an alternative to actual medical treatment, cleaning products, fad diets that are generally agreed to be problematic (see keto). A lot of alternative medicine people come up with is very dubiously founded and doesn’t hold up to scientific rigour and it drives me nuts. You can find anyone saying anything to back up your opinion on the internet and it’s so easy for the real grounded opinions (type 3 above) to get lost in the shuffle.

    Not to mention if you take the time to actually try to change someone’s mind on these topics, you risk them sticking their head in the sand even further. This is a well documented research-based phenomenon in the fight against antivaxxers.

    I have a few thoughts about this mistrust of science that don’t really connect, but here they are:
    1) on many topics scientific evidence doesn’t offer a firm yes/no answer, in fact a good scientist will almost always say maybe or probably. This is the foundation of scientific reasoning–that you can never ultimately prove something to be true. In a society that values religious thinking, which is often much more black and white, the more tempered voices of a scientific answer get lost in the noise and are much less compelling than someone saying they have the answer.

    2) scientific literacy is a real thing that a lot of people lack and/or don’t consider in their day to day decision making

    3) the scientific community as a whole isn’t always the most welcoming to lay people in the way they speak (language too complicated), their association with hard line atheists, and their association with large corporate entities (universities, commercial enterprises,etc)

    I don’t really have a concluding point except to say that I really like this reflection you’re taking on and sharing with us. Logic and science, hooray!!

    1. Your comment reminded me of oil pulling. I have never seen research on it, but I love it. It makes my mouth feel great, keeps my teeth clean (based on dentist appts) and visibly whitens my teeth.

      I would never advocate that people should only oil pull in lieu of other oral care, but I have given oil pulling a platform by discussing it here.

      It also reminds me of the GOOP article I linked to a couple Friday’s ago. Which wellness fads are harmless, and which ones can do harm?

      1. This discussion also made me think about the GOOP article. I live on the west side of LA where GOOP is based. West LA is a hotbed for health approaches that are not scientifically or medically proven. It is also a mecca for anti-vaxxers. It is always shocking to me that these college educated people have so little regard for data and peer reviewed research. But I think that is the effect when all viewpoints are considered equal. While I respect Gwyneth Paltrow as a businessperson, GOOP is one of the worst offenders for peddling pseudoscience and disregarding actual medical research—all in the name of wellness.

  5. When I taught school, I frequently heard “I’m entitled to my opinion” constantly, as a reply to anything that a student didn’t like hearing. (Teenagers can be stubborn creatures.) My reply was always, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to share it. Feelings are not opinions. When you have established some authority on a matter, you will have an informed opinion and you will be entitled to share it.” That’s the distinction; everyone has an opinion, but let’s give weight to the informed opinion. It’s an important distinction that must be made. Feelings and facts are so often conflated in people’s minds that they can’t tell the difference between the two.

    PS: Yes, I remember sheet pan tacos!

    1. When I was a teacher, I used to say the same thing to my students!

      Really good point about feelings and facts – I think as a culture we have developed an ego problem which makes it difficult for people to admit they might be wrong about an issue and publicly change their minds.

      I wish we could remove the stigma from that process.

  6. That building a border wall will reduce crime and is the best use of fiscal resources to control the flow of illegal immigrants. That immigrants are disproportionately likely to commit violent crimes or terrorism (this one is a favorite lie of Trump). Also that building a border wall is even logistically possible, given that much of the border is a river (and its ecologically critical watershed), and most of the U.S. side is privately-owned land that the government doesn’t have the right to seize.

  7. I’m extremely grateful that you care so much about truth and its importantance – without it we are lost and unmoored from reality, and lose good judgement. It’s great to see someone thinking deeply about the place of truth and social responsibility, and how to balance it with the freedom of people to express themselves. It takes courage to say that not all opinions are of equal weight, but it matters. I appreciate that no-one gets it right all the time – but it’s what our aim should be.

  8. While I totally agree with the premise that the weight of an opinion based on facts is greater than the one that is not, I still think we need to care about opinions that are based on personal experience, even when there is no data to support them. I think that it is becoming common practice these days to just brush an opinion aside because it is not supported by evidence we can see. And while feelings aren’t opinions all opinions are generated from feelings. You can’t have an opinion unless you care one way or the other. If you want to bring that opinion into a debate you should have some back-up for it but if that back-up is a personal, first-hand experience with the situation, I’m fine with that…even if I don’t agree with it. I might have strong opinions about global warming that are all based on scientific facts and firmly believe that systems need to be put into place to curb it, but I still think it’s important to hear from the small business owner who provides services and jobs but struggles to stay afloat because of heavy environmental regulations and taxes.

    Now, as far as giving air-time to people with only opinions based on feelings and speculations and second-hand theory – no. That’s not serious journalism and it makes me angry when that’s what I see. But it’s a pretty common practice for TV news. Some years ago I was stopped by a TV reporter and asked if I would be filmed sharing my opinions on a certain topic. I refused. I had opinions on the topic that I could have spouted off but they were not informed enough to be shared with the public at large.

    1. I went to write my thoughts but it’s almost exactly the same as Rachel wrote above.
      I don’t think it deserves the airtime or equal credence but to say someone isn’t able to hold a belief/opinion/feeling just because it’s not rooted in science is too far.
      I recently read an article about flat-earthers. It was a really interesting exercise in learning and listening without judgement. I’m in no danger of thinking they are right but I’m really glad to live in a (round) world where they can openly speak such a n unusual position.

      1. That’s an interesting example, Kimberley. It makes me curious where we might draw a line. Would we be okay if the Flat Earth Theory was included in text books? Should flat earthers be granted a public platform, or have their views shared by the media?

    2. Rachel, your example with the small business owner includes two different issues though. Of course his opinion on the costs of regulations is relevant to determine the right kind of policy. It would be a different matter if he decided that climate change can’t exist because it’s too expensive.
      Which I think happens sometimes – it’s easier to say that there is no Climate Change than to admit that we care more about not changing our comfortable way of life than about keeping the Fidji islands above water.

  9. A very thought provoking post as always Gabrielle. I firmly believe that we have a right to our opinions but a responsibility to ensure they are informed. This means looking at both sides and seeing how they measure up. This goes for both sides of the political spectrum. It’s not enough to say that climate change is real because ‘duh’ or because people who I identify say it is; that’s just a recipe for blind faith albeit one that may be correct sometimes.

    The important questions in life reside in the grey area and there are no easy answers. Evidence, ideas need to be examined and examined again. As other readers mentioned many people are dissatisfied with the nature of science; rules are not hard and fast and they change all the time. Static ‘truths’, even if they invite panic and anger provide sense and meaning in what can be a chaotic and often senseless world. As I get older I find I need to be correct less and just want to try and get on with people and to offer small kindnesses where I can. I’m wrong a lot and that’s okay. I’m more confident in myself and that means I am okay with being wrong, it doesn’t make me lesser or worthless.

  10. How about the opinion of abortion at any time for any reason? Surely science proves aborting a (healthy) preborn child even days before it’s due date when it is viable, is killing a person. Science proves it is a human being. The opinion is that it is not.

        1. I still don’t think your example works in this instance. I’ve never heard anyone, expert or otherwise, share the opinion that babies who can thrive outside of a womb should be aborted. Abortions that happen in the 3td trimester are due to heartbreaking health issues for the baby and/or the mother.

      1. Also worth noting: Abortion rights secured by Roe V. Wade significantly impacted maternal mortality rates. Worldwide, mothers die less when legal abortion is available–and not just because they’re no longer turning to illegal options. Many, many abortions are performed to save the mother’s life. One in forty pregnancies are ecotopic, which makes the pregnancy nonviable and severely threatens the mother’s survival. When the mother dies before or during childbirth, the baby is unlikely to survive. Even if the baby lives, the trauma of losing a parent in this way can’t be overstated.

        This quote from a government study published in 2007 is very important:

        “During 1969-2002, the maternal mortality rate for women in the low poverty group declined by 41%, whereas the rate for women in the middle and high poverty groups decreased by 50.5% and 53.9%, respectively.”

        Every woman’s likelihood of survival increased, but the poorest women–who are most likely to suffer unwanted pregnancy and health complications during pregnancy and birth–benefited the most. No one wants pregnancies terminated as an alternative to safe sexual practices, but legal abortion saves lives.


  11. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love this post. Thank you for sharing and I can’t wait to go read the article it is based on. My mother likes to through that statement out a lot. So often when she is talking about stuff, I have to tell her she needs to look into the facts she is sighting because often so much of what she is stating is based on fake news and not actual facts. It is so frustrating. Thanks again for sharing the sheet pan tacos. I had forgotten about this recipe. Now I am looking forward to making them.

  12. A probing discussion of opinions – informed and less so, the importance of truth and facts in our discourse, AND a recipe for tacos?! That’s why I love your blog.

  13. In my experience as a Midwestern Millenial, this is a knee-jerk reaction based mostly on the fear of being perceived as stupid. People don’t want their opinions (we could also call them “beliefs”) challenged, because it makes them feel talked down to. As if they’re less intelligent merely because they’re less informed. That feeling contributes so much to confirmation bias–the desire to seek out sources that shore up our own arguments. “See? This doctor agrees with me! I’m not an idiot!”

    The solution to this is as much about recognizing our own insecurity as it is about facts. We aren’t stupid just because we don’t know everything. Who does? Who could? No one expects you to have all the answers, or to rattle off all the names and numbers. That’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn. Refusing to be taught anything new out of prejudice, fear, or hurt pride.

    You aren’t an expert in every field. I’m not, you’re not, no one is. We must trust those who’ve devoted their time and attention to really understanding a topic. We must “take their word for it.” Who else’s word is worth taking? You wouldn’t go to a nuclear physicist to learn Christian theology, and you shouldn’t go to a Priest to learn about atomic nuclei. There’s no shame in admitting what we do not know.

  14. Great post and article…

    Growing up I was taught to keep opinions to myself unless expressly asked.

    I’d say I’m about 90% successful (in extreme cases, it’s a struggle!) but it generally works well for me in particular.

    PS – I’m A-ok with facts!

  15. I immediately thought of this quote, by writer Harlan Ellison:

    You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant. –Harlan Ellison

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