Stand your ground: on having opinions

My pal Chris is a good man. He’s moral, thoughtful, concerned, rational. And he is sounding a bit desperate about the impossibility of ‘having a well-founded opinion on most things’. He says that when he strips his opinions to the bare metal, he finds elements of fear and clannish news and prejudice and guess/gut operating, as well as stronger planks of argument and some ‘facts’ The quotation marks are his.

This dismaying realisation, alongside time-starvation, leads him to wonder about the impossibility of having opinions. But of course that leaves the field clear for Mensch and Hopkins, let alone senior politicians who don’t seem to have noticed that the Eire/NI border is a land frontier for the UK.

What to do about this? Let’s start with the experts, so chillingly dismissed by Gove. This week (during one my endless train journeys) I talked to a 41 year-old  woman who has had a hip operation, her original ambition to avoid surgery overtaken by the unanimous voices of her medical team. Looking supremely chic on her crutches (my opinion), she said ‘I listened to the experts. That’s what they’re there for.’  As for me, her opinions are in part (a large part) based on sources she considered authoritative.

What makes for authority?  Prof Brian Cox is an expert on a a number of subjects including advancing the public understanding of science. That makes his view relevant in how to think about difficult, complex topics which require substantial study. He  said (in a Guardian interview on  2 July ‘The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.’

This  distinction between studying and vested interest is fundamental and clearly profoundly confused in the current public ‘debate’ ion both the UK and US. Behind his words lie the importance of the scientific method, the development, falsification and re-development of hypotheses based on rigorous and repeatable experimental data. Of course, exploring the surface of Pluto doesn’t involve the unacceptable ethical cost (or sheer impossibility) of testing social theorems but that does not invalidate the findings of social science, psychology or even economics. It means we need to understand better the restrictions on the testing, we need to achieve a basic literacy in the scientific method.

So, yes, I base some of my opinions on people I judge to be experts in the relevant field. I wouldn’t ask Clive James his opinion on climate science but his views on poetry have my respect.

Then those pesky ‘facts’. Chris seems to doubt there are such things, in a rather more everyday and urgent fashion than Bishop Berkeley or Wittgenstein. There are facts out there. Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty explicitly requires the Council of Ministers to act unanimously in agreeing the accession of a new member state. That hasn’t changed. Of course, one day it might change but it is vanishingly unlikely – but today, mid-2016, that is a fact. The last 70 years have seen one of the longest periods of peace across the continent of Europe ever known. We might well argue about the reasons for that, and there are many I’m sure (not just NATO, not just Mutually Assured Destruction or solely the EU, but all of them contributed) but that long summer in which I have lived is, if not unprecedented, extremely unusual.

We can check those facts. Go and look up the Lisbon Treaty, ask an expert, conduct our own experiments in the kitchen if you wish. But (in my non-philosopher mode) I will stick up for facts and their importance when we are being fed such a shed-load of lies.

And, of course, we can see what people we respect think about something. We cannot fact check everything, take the time to read the Labour Party Constitution or understand the way traffic flows work in your local road bottleneck. We cannot find the trustworthy expert every time: there may not even be one. So we can see who we respect and understand their opinion. Treated with care that’s a perfectly valid approach it seems to me.

I tend to use some bellwether issues in considering some of my choices. For me, continued opposition to the UK’s departure from the European Union is fundamental. Oppostion to Trident is pretty important too, and for some people the single most important thing. (I’d like to be absolutely certain it would not cost us the permanent seat on the UN Security Council, by the way.) Such an approach can be helpful in assessing a complicated mixture of ideas, right now epitomised in the Labour Party leadership debate.

It has two traps, though. Just because I agree with you on most things doesn’t necessarily mean we concur on everything. We might diverge on Trident, or the best way to lose weight or how to encourage your child to love maths. Or the other side of the coin – by talking only to people we agree with, we operate in a bubble which doesn’t enable us to learn or understand other points of view. I am sure I am guilty of that, and I cannot simply blame the algorithms of FB or Twitter. I too have to get out more.

Despite those traps, though, understanding something about people’s value’s is central. If I know you to be moral, thoughtful, concerned, rational, if I think you too believe in evidence and enlightenment, in compassion and uncommon sense, I will give your opinions and insights more weight in forming my own. Of course, many people we might disagree with passionately consider themselves to be moral, rational and right.

We need too, to understand our own biases, the limits of our experience and perception, and the uncomfortable truth that individual anecdote does not equal a valid hypothesis. I am certainly on the upside of the long destruction of communities that started with the miners’  strike; for instance I have a degree along with other privileges of race and class. There are many experiences I have been fortunate enough to be spared – for example, I have not been raped or had an abortion and I have not had to endure poverty for long at a time. In thinking about my gut-instinct, what stands to reason or I take as common sense, all those biases are part of the evidence, need to feed into my evaluation of my opinion. Do I believe this commentator rather than that, privilege one experience over another (which may be a reverse snobbery of course). Again, understanding the prior limitations of the evidence and one’s analysis are part of basic literacy in the scientific method.

Not having an opinion is often to take a position. Doing nothing, saying nothing, is also an intervention. The exhortations to speak out in the face of evil can feel overblown sometimes, but nonetheless supporting  rational, adult conversations about the mess we are in has seldom been more important. So for those of us who do care, who worry about the handbasket in which we are careering towards the flames, we want to have opinions, for them to be well-founded and defensible. Leaving the field to the anti-rationalists, the can’t-be-arsed and the haters is not acceptable.

All the same though – it’s not essential to have an opinion on everything. (Memo to self: remember this point.). We  can’t all be on the barricades and writing the undying literature of protest or the poems defining a nation, while  toiling in  the trenches limiting the worst of the damage as best we can and  raising the heroes of the future.

We do what we can, those things to which are best shaped, where our dreams and lives take us. We pick those battles where we uniquely may make a difference. Sometimes it is ok not to have a view, but some of the time, on something we must stand our ground.

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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