Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is anyone entitled to their own opinion?

I enjoyed this piece in The Australian Higher Education this week – ‘Opinion trounces fact’ by Gary Olsen. We have become so obsessed in our education system with eliciting opinions (‘what do you think?’) that we neglect understanding:

Not long ago, a scholar of postmodern thought delivered an honours seminar on the French philosopher Michel Foucault to a class of juniors. Twenty minutes into her explanation of his theory of discourse, one of the students sneered:

‘Well, that's his opinion. I don't agree’

Stunned, the professor explained that, given the fact the class had only just begun reading the philosopher's work, the first task was neither to agree nor to disagree but to understand exactly what was being argued. Agreement or disagreement was a privilege earned only after having mastered and reflected on the material.

Annoyed, the student replied,

‘everyone is entitled to an opinion, and my opinion is that he is wrong.’
The glorification of opinion has gone too far in my opinion but, that’s only my opinion.

Seriously, I regret to say that I have often had the experience that Olsen has with many of my colleagues and students. They seem to regard any argument propounded that disagrees with their precepts not as something to be refuted or agreed to but merely as ‘your opinion’ and, of course, ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’.

James Whyte’s Crimes Against Logic discusses the inane ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’ fallacy. You don’t have the right to your own opinion and, apart from being false, this invocation is always being invoked even when it is irrelevant even if it were true.

Whyte’s example involves X telling Y that ‘President Bush invaded Iraq to steal its oil’. When Y disagrees and provides a host of counterarguments X explodes and says ‘That’s your opinion’. This is an irrelevant claim. X and Y disagreed over Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq. Y did not assert that X had no right to an opinion. For all it contributed to the question at issue X might have said that 'John Quiggin looks younger with his beard cut off'. If X’s claim is that we are entitled to a conclusion which might nonetheless be false, this entitlement to an opinion adds bugger all to resolving the original issue. It does nothing to show that X’s original claim is true.

Interpreting the claim that we are all entitled to our own opinions if they are true has two problems. First it is ridiculous and second it does not make clear which of the two parties has the correct view.

As Whyte concludes: When your opponent in a debate declares ‘I am entitled to my opinion’ …you should realise that it is simple rudeness to persist with the matter. You may be interested in whether or not their opinion is true, but take the hint, they aren’t’.


Chidori Ashi Kun said...

is it possible the student was challenging what has become a "regime of truth"?
a socially legitimated system of imposed ignorance that has become controlling and institutional.

Sinclair Davidson said...

I also enjoyed the article - but it was undermined by the initial example. Anyone saying French philosopher Michel Foucault is wrong is, of course, right. Correct conclusion, wrong reason on the students part.

conrad said...

Actually, I don't think its too much opinion which is the problem at the undergraduate level, its lack of thought full stop. We run tutorials now and then with what should be controversial and interesting topics, and I'm always surprised by how little students have either (a) thought about it; and (b) have anything to say about it, even an opinion.

I guess this is the problem with having entire classes full of middle class 19 year olds and asking them watered down policy-style questions. C'est la vie i guess.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the position taken by the article is even worse than that of the student. It consists, almost without exception, in arguments from authority, going to the ludicrous extreme of saying that a job applicant who disagrees with an appointment committee is automatically in the wrong.

BTW, do you think the beard-youth relationship is a matter of opinion or fact. I think you could make good arguments either way.

John Q

hc said...

John, I think it is a question of fact. How is your age perceived with the beard removed? If I said you looked like you had aged 20 years+ with your beard removed people wouldn't interpret that as my opinion - they would say I was mistaken or that I had made a false claim.

conrad said...

Actually, just to be controversial :), I'll say that apart from looking younger, you'll be pleased to know that without the beard (and hence less masculine characteristics) you are likely to look more beautiful to the average female. And thats not just unsubstantiated opinion.

Rhodes, G. (2006). The evolutionary psychology
Review of Psychology, 57, 1 –28.

Philosophy Student year 11 said...

Good God! Your postings are nothing but your opinions, neither are anybody else's. That's the folly of the subjective nature of reality we all live in.

Jan said...

Yes, this 'subjectivism' (that was popularized by Wittgenstein by goes back to Sophism in the Ancient Greece) is really frustrating as it kills any serious debate.

But as Conrad suggested, the first hurdle is to get the students to speak at all...

Anonymous said...

Yes, but is everyone entitled to the truth?

jyrecelts said...

he who pursues truth is entitled to increased understanding, which is in fact, an onion - pi...