Sunday, June 15, 2008

On Facts and Opinions

Last night I heard an objection I have often heard in various guises: "Why should I listen to you or anyone else? Everyone thinks they're right." The assumption behind this is one of the basic problems we find in the U.S. -- the inability to differentiate between fact and opinion. Involved in this is an inability to understand the relationship between fact and opinion, and the differentiation between true opinion and mere opinion. But let's start with the first distinction.

For the most part, people aren't typically going to challenge what you say about scientific facts at the physical, chemical, geological, meteorological (unless they're an ecotheist), biological (unless they're a creationist), or ecological (see ecotheist comment) levels -- but if you start talking about human things, like human nature, psychology, culture, social behaviors, economics, politics, or the arts, then you run into the objection that everyone thinks they are right. Here the assumption is that there is no such thing as human truth/facts, but that it's all nothing but opinion. But there are facts about humans we have to take into consideration. Humans are social, but also individuals. Humans have a large number of instincts which express themselves as universals. Humans have moral minds, which lead to ethical universals. One could go on and on. Of course, there are variations on these universals, giving them somewhat fuzzy edges, but just because something has fuzzy edges doesn't mean it doesn't exist. This being the case, there are in fact things one can say about humans that are in fact right, and it doesn't matter if you think they are right or not. Facts don't care a whit about your opinion of them.

Thus, if there are facts about human beings, one can develop opinions based on those facts that are more or less correct. The more of these kinds of facts on takes into consideration, the more likely your opinion is going to be right. The result is the development of a true opinion. Those who rely only on how they feel about something, not taking facts into consideration, have a mere opinion. They may discover that the facts do happen to agree with them, at which point it becomes true opinion, but i have discovered that when it comes to human things, especially economics, this is rarely the case.

I try to avoid mere opinion. If I do not know something, I admit the fact. I also try to learn what is actually the case about human nature, and make fine adjustments in that light. So when I give someone advice, it is because I have a fairly high level of confidence in my knowledge about human beings in that area. It doesn't mean I'm absolutely right, of course. There's plenty out there we still must learn about human beings. But it does mean I have true opinion rather than mere opinion on those things I am willing to venture to talk about. In other words, I have actual reasons to believe I am right -- it's not all mere opinion.


LemmusLemmus said...

What you call "true opinion", I would rather call "informed hypothesis" or something like that. What you call "mere opinion", I'd rather call "guess", or "ignorant view".

The problem with "truths" about human nature is that we're almost always talking about averages (at least once we leave the medical realm). So anyone can cite a conterexample, and people differ in what examples they know. As far as I am aware, that's not true if we're talking about, say, light. There is a reason that the hard sciences are called the hard sciences.

Troy Camplin said...

Blame Plato, they're his terms.

My response to people giving counterexamples is, "The exception does not negate the rule." But when we are talking about human universals, we are talking about something that is indeed universal -- and biological. One may have to explain how murder prohibitions are in fact universal when we look at cultures that engaged in human sacrifice, for example, but once you understand what they are doing, it becomes clear that they are not at all violating the universal prohibition against murder.

LemmusLemmus said...

That Plato bloke, he really didn't know his English!

Now I see what you're getting at. When you said "human universals", I thought more about something like "men want casual sex more often than women", which is true on average (probably in any society), but for which counterexamples can easily be found.

What you mean is what I would call societal universals, but that's just more haggling over words.

Troy Camplin said...

Indeed, there is also the issue of tendencies, which trip people up as well. Just because there is a tendency for men (as a group) to want sex more than women (as a group), that doesn't mean that the most sex-hungry person in the world isn't a woman -- or that the person with the lowest libido isn't a man.