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Opinions

What will make your opinion better than someone else's?

What will make your opinion better than someone else’s?

Several of you have brought up this idea: your opinions. The word has several meanings, two of which are relevant here.

Unsubstantiated claims

One meaning is unsubstantiated claim. The idea here is that everyone has opinions, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and one opinion is as good as another. These opinions are usually an expression of feeling and emotion, whether explicit (“People on welfare are lazy bums, so Congress should abolish welfare.” “My boyhood favorites Boston Red Sox are the best team in baseball.”) or implicit (“Welfare saps human motivation.” “Players who have admitted to using steroids should never be in the Hall of Fame.”).

Even though you have the right to your opinion, it is not true that all opinions are equal. About four hundred years ago in what we now call Western society, thoughtful, curious people developed a way to tell which opinions were true and which were not. Until then people were generally ruled by the authority of a human, usually one with power, or the authority of humans collectively, that is, tradition. So the big thing that happened four hundred years ago was a way of telling what was true independent of authority, human or divine.

The movement to do that is call the Enlightenment in the sense of a light going on.

Opinions are like belly buttons. Everyone has one.

Opinions are like belly buttons. Everyone has one.

The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment) is a term used to describe a time in Western philosophy and cultural life, centered upon the eighteenth century, in which reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority.

Before that, might made right. If the king or priest or rich man said something, it was right because they said it. After the Enlightenment, might still ruled, of course. But there was an alternative. Sometimes, reason made right.

No, It’s Not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong

Opinion, or worse “belief”, has become the shield of every poorly-conceived notion that worms its way onto social media.

There’s nothing wrong with an opinion. The problem comes from people whose opinions are actually misconceptions. If you think vaccines cause autism you are expressing something factually wrong, not an opinion. The fact that you may still believe that vaccines cause autism does not move your misconception into the realm of valid opinion. Nor does the fact that many other share this opinion give it any more validity

Substantiated claims

That gets us to the other meaning of opinion: substantiated claim. “After thoroughly researching and carefully analyzing the unequal distribution of resources in our society, it is my position that Senator XYZ’s proposal to raise the income threshold for food stamps will motivate the marginally employed members of our society.” When supported by a lot of research and careful explanation, this claim has so much authority that it’s more than an opinion. It’s a position. In an essay, it could function as the thesis statement.

Part of what going to college is all about is learning how people and organizations make better decisions by grounding claims in evidence and reasoning. While it may be true in the bar on Saturday night that all opinions are equally good (wanna go outside and fight about it?), it is not true in the office on Monday morning.

At work, all opinions are not equal. When you go to work, you are entitled to your opinion, it’s your right to have it. But you will soon learn to keep it to yourself if you can’t support it with good evidence and sound reasoning.

In short, you are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own evidence. Nor are you entitled to your own reasoning process. The criteria for evidence are well established: is it relevant, valid, reliable, and sufficient? Logical reasoning is tried and true. Common logical fallacies can be identified and avoided.

So yes, your opinions are important and worth listening to, but only after you have earned the right to be taken seriously by researching the evidence and analyzing the situation with logical reasoning. Then your opinion becomes your position and it is worth much more. It might even change the minds of someone who has only an unsubstantiated opinion.


The risk!

The risk!

Turning opinions into persuasive arguments

The best or most persuasive argument will explain evidence that passes the common tests of evidence: is it valid? reliable? relevant? sufficient? This process turns opinions into facts.

How can you tell …

  • whether your opinions are any good? Why should anyone pay attention to you?
  • whether someone’s opinion is worth paying attention to? For example, politicians and advertisers.
  • whether “facts” are true or false?

When you have an important decision to make, how do you think it through?

What does it take to convince you?

What Is An Argument?

One kind of argument, we hear every day. Often spoken rather than written, it is seldom rational or logical. It leads to frustration and shouting or worse.

“That’s Just Your Opinion.”

The other kind of argument occurs when people want to change each others’ minds or actions. We often try to persuade others to buy an idea or to behave in a certain way. Salespeople, politicians, customers, teachers, and bosses try to sell us ideas or influence our behavior.

“Believe Me”

Whether spoken or written, wise or unwise, true or false, that kind of argument is a group of statements. Many of those statements blow smoke, sprinkle fairy dust, and spread ignorance. They may entertain or distract and are often quite effective at that.

To think clearly, we must separate those statements from statements that matter. Statements that matter function three ways, as assertion, as evidence, and as explanation.