A few days ago a friend linked to an article on my Facebook page and asked “is this you?” I read the article, titled “No, It’s Not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong,” and laughed. I laughed at first because it sounded like something I would say, and I laughed as I read the article because it made a serious point in a humorous way. This is not just a Daily Read post because I want to expand on some of the things mentioned in the article. I suggest reading it first, because the author, Jef Rouner, makes beautiful work out of distinguishing between facts and opinions. The point of this post, inspired by Rouner, is to provide a discussion of some of the critically important concepts he addresses.
I continue to feel concerned about the availability of so much information through the internet. Our ability to do a Google search and open ourselves to a world of knowledge is a wonderful thing, but it has a dark side. I’m not going to harp on the point here since I’ve addressed it many times before, but a lot of the problem comes from an inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and lies, data and anecdote, science and snake-oil. Human beings are pattern-seeking animals. We deploy motivated reasoning to justify our beliefs and choices. We are easily bamboozled by sophisticated nonsense. We are prone to a whole host of logical fallacies, a subject I’ve only barely managed to skim so far. We tend to stop cold on our quest for knowledge when we come across a source that backs up what we already want to believe, and scoff at or dismiss information that refutes our beliefs; that is, we fall prey, sometimes willingly, to confirmation bias. And we will reject the arguments of others by throwing out a few non-arguments in response: “I’m entitled to my opinion.” “I’m allowed to have my beliefs.” “I have the right to free speech.” Aside from the fact that these statements are not actually arguments but are instead information-free, knee-jerk, defensive cliches bereft of any logical content or reasoned rebuttal, they are also frequently wrong.
To begin: an opinion is not a fact. Neither is a belief. This reiterates what Rouner says in his article, but it bears repeating: an opinion is a judgement of a fact. A fact is a verifiable truth. The earth’s existence is a fact. That the earth is round is a fact. That the earth orbits the sun is a fact. These facts have all been verified. None of them is an opinion. If someone says to you, “In my opinion, the earth is flat,” they are not actually stating an opinion; they are making a claim that the flatness of the earth is a fact. They are wrong. Opinion has nothing whatsoever to do with it. This example is obviously ridiculous, but it applies to other areas of fact. Evolution is a fact that has been verified. Yet there are plenty of people who will say that in their opinion, evolution – especially of humans – has not occurred. Again, this is not an opinion because an opinion is a judgement of something. So, you could say that in your opinion, scientists who study evolution are arrogant; but if you say that evolution, in your opinion, is wrong, you are using opinion the wrong way. You cannot substitute an opinion for a fact. If you do not think evolution occurs, then by all means marshall whatever evidence you can in support of your hypothesis, but leave your opinions out of it.
This confusion of opinion with fact happens all the time. It tends to occur when people are unable to marshall the evidence to support their ideas, so all they can say is “Well, I’m entitled to believe that evolution didn’t happen.” But are you? Are people really entitled to dismissing known facts because it happens to not match with their ideological predilections? I sometimes wish we could do this, but it just doesn’t work: facts don’t give a shit about your opinions or your beliefs. I think that when someone rejects a fact because it is not true, in their opinion, we should call those fauxpinions.
Related to the unsupported, non-entitled opinion is the lament that a person’s right to free speech is being suppressed by those who deign to argue with, dismiss, or ignore a person’s non-factual fauxpinions. Again, this happens when a person is unable to pull together a body of actual facts and evidence to support their side of the argument. I wish I didn’t have to point this out because it’s so achingly obvious, but somebody disagreeing with you does not constitute a violation of your freedom of speech. A debate does not constitute a free speech violation. A ban or an unfriending is not a free speech violation. A deleted comment is not a free speech violation. Someone pointing out where you may be wrong is not a free speech violation. Someone having a different opinion from you – and yes, even though I have harped on facts, it is obviously possible to have different actual opinions about a fact (e.g. different opinions on the death penalty) – is not a free speech violation. Even the loss of commenting privileges on a website, or the deleting of your account, is not a free speech violation.
So what is a violation of freedom of speech, then? It is when the government suppresses speech. That’s it. It’s really that simple. If any government official, agency, bureau, department, et al deletes your Twitter account, then, my friend, you have experienced a violation of your freedom of speech. If Twitter deletes your account, they are not violating your free speech. They may not be justified, but Twitter, Facebook, the comment section in your local paper, your Tea Party cousin, your socialist aunt – none of these entities is obligated to listen to you or allow you to say whatever you want to say. So please, for the love of speech, do not whine about how your rights have been violated because somebody blocks or deletes or, god forbid, disagrees with your speech. You may have the right to say it, but I have the right to disagree with it, ignore it, or dismiss it.
We all have a lot to learn online and from each other. We will all have different opinions about the facts we encounter. We will all sometimes feel dismissed or ignored by people who disagree with us. And we should all learn to back up what we say with logic and reason, avoid fauxpinions, and know the difference between facts and opinions. Our speech will be better for it.