In the classical sense, an opinion is based on understanding a subject. We all may have differing opinions, but the subject is static, Our opinions may vary based on differing levels of understanding, or on differing priorities. If someone has differing priorities, you can reach an agreement that you both understand the issue and do not agree on the implications. If someone does not understand the subject but will not let go of their opinion, there is no point in discussion, they have nothing to teach you about the issue, and they do not care to learn anything from you.
This is why I love popular discussions. I have learned the most from people I disagree with, sometimes the enlightenment has caused me to change my opinion, sometimes it has reinforced my opinion, but I do my best to separate my opinion from “the facts”. Apparently that skill is not as appreciated as it once was, the power of opinion seems to be more valuable than the power of facts these days.
An example would be our president. I don’t like him. I find him to be a poor president, but I do not think he is a poor leader in every sense. He certainly has a
fanatical strong following, I just don’t care for his methods or where he appears to be leading the country. I don’t care what race he is, or which religion if any he follows. I have had discussions about his qualities, and can acknowledge the things that he has done right. When I am in a discussion and someone brings up the “fact” that he is Muslim, my first response is “Our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, his religion is not pertinent to his leadership”, usually followed by “and he claims not to be Muslim anyway.” If the person I am talking with is basing their opinion on false information that has something to do with what we are talking about that is one thing, if it is based on irrelevant information their opinion is even more distorted. It goes both ways. If I say “Obama is a lousy president” and the response is “you’re a racist” I attempt to enlighten my adversary to the notion that his color is unimportant, irrelevant to my opinion. If their opinion is based on the belief that any disagreement has nothing to do with the issue but is instead based on irrelevant information, their opinions are as distorted as the person who is biased against him because they believe him to be Muslim.
I have had the benefit of a wide breadth of experiences, and have also been blessed with a few intellectual tools such as curiosity and insight, so I’ve learned a lot about a variety of subjects. I am a rarity, in that I recognize the limits of my understanding and try to learn more.
We are bombarded by opinions, with few facts to be found in most conversations. Slowly there has been a shift from relevant facts to popular opinion, and while someone with no basis upon which to form their opinion might be interesting to listen to, they are not furthering the understanding of the subject.
During the search for the missing Malaysian airliner, facts have been thin so space was filled with opinion. Even Courtney Love came forward as a photo interpreter. Having spent some time with people who spent careers interpreting satellite images, I understand the intricacies involved. Courtney Love’s opinion was immediately dismissed because she was Courtney Love, but when the Prime Minister of Australia came forward he was taken seriously. Neither was a trained photo interpreter, and my friends and I all had a good laugh at the surreal nature of taking a celebrity opinion over an expert analysis. The entire world buzzed anyway.
This morning, on a web site devoted to astronomy, a woman asked where she could see the two stars in the sky. She had seen an article about it on the internet. A few people were quick to remind her that stars do not travel into different systems, and at least one person suggested she could see two suns on Tatooine. She is a regular on the site, and probably considers herself an amateur astronomer, I just hope she isn’t dispensing her opinions on astronomy to her friends as facts.
I have friends who are avidly against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food. There may be valid reasons for their beliefs, but until there is documented research showing GMOs are in any way harmful, their beliefs are based on fear of the unknown. This dovetails into Anthropogenic Climate Change (AGW). When an actual scientific study produces data indicating there is an anthropogenic element I’ll take the issue more seriously, but presently a political organization is the only source of alarms, so I have to view the issue as political. Are there perfectly good reasons to control pollution? Absolutely, but they have nothing to do with climate change. I have seen office workers treat used toner cartridges as toxic waste, because they believed they were filled with carbon. Sorry, there is no carbon in the empty container, it has been printed onto all your copies, and carbon is inert, totally safe unless you inhale it in high concentrations. You exhale more carbon than you inhale every time you breathe.
These examples bring me to food allergies. Celiac disease affects one percent of the population, and has serious consequences for those affected. Half an aisle in my supermarket is devoted to gluten free products. There is no reason to avoid gluten if you do not suffer from celiac disease, yet the products are very popular, there’s even a quinoa vodka which is advertised as gluten free. In case you were not aware, all vodka is gluten free, as gluten is cooked out during the distilling process. In the same way that a mattress made from aloe vera leaves (I have seen them) has no affect on your skin, quinoa vodka has no unique benefit if you are avoiding gluten. Someone with celiac disease would know that, which is my point. Fear of a substance is marketed to people who have nothing to fear. Their opinion on gluten has been formed based on an impression that gluten is bad for everyone. Several of my friends go out of their way to avoid gluten, but only three of them have any need to do so.
Opinions about subjects fire intelligent discussions, and I honestly believe that positive ideas bubble to the top. When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), the accepted medical opinion was stress does not exacerbate MS. I suggested to my neurologist directly, and to several others through other patients, that stress exacerbates the impact of symptoms, so from the patient’s point of view, stress does exacerbate MS. Within a few years the opinion was being discussed in medical circles, and today the link between stress and MS is widely accepted. Change is slow, but in scientific communities a rational argument goes a long way.
A reasoned, rational argument can break any barrier, an uninformed, irrational argument builds barriers where there were none. Knowledge is more powerful than you might imagine.