Monday, June 25, 2007

Opinions over Facts

I have to admit to being slightly uncertain of my convictions. For the most part I am not sure of much. What gets my ire is when anyone proclaims something that they are certain of or dismisses something because it is preposterous and violates some notion they have about the ways of the world they are certain of.

In other words, the only thing I am certain of is that nothing is certain. Of course, that statement contradicts itself and the weight of certainty can be lifted from one’s shoulder simply by shrugging and saying, “Who the hell knows?”

I don’t want the polar ice caps to melt, but do I really know if man is causing global warming? Who the hell knows? I am in favor of some regulations reducing the amount of CO2 being put into the atmosphere because I don’t like the idea of burning fossil fuels and lowering the Earths storage of energy versus using the annual supply of solar energy and renewable resources. I read Buckminster Fuller as a youth in the 1970’s and he always made sense to me.

Here is where we are all confused and lost in this conundrum in my opinion, though. We expect someone else to solve the big problem facing our increasingly global economy. Science tells us that the Earth is warming and CO2 is the likely cause. There is a consensus. I don’t have the equipment or the know-how to verify if this is true or not, so I am just supposed to trust the experts. Fine, in this case I do. However, the experts in science have been wrong on the consensus view in the past. How do I know that this is not one of those cases?

In today’s world we are beholden to the experts. Our education does not teach us to verify the results of scientists, but rather to trust the experts and the work they produce. We are fed these results in the media and by journalists, whom we are supposed to trust can verify the results of the scientists. We are left with an elite group of experts making our decisions for us and arguments or debate usually is just one side spouting facts from one side at the opposing side. We leave for the experts to reach a consensus, then we scream at our opponent, “Science says!” How is this different than appealing to the Priests and the religious icons in the past to settle debate?

I think we often come at debate wrong. Many people think it is ignorant to begin with an opinion as opposed to having facts on hand. I disagree. I think one should begin first with an opinion that is based on ones experience and socially formed morality. For instance, I start most political arguments with a few basic opinions that reflect my morality.

  1. We should have concern and compassion for our fellow human beings.
  2. War is bad and should always be avoided in almost all instances.
  3. We should preserve local resources and strive for a sustainable economy.
  4. We share the Earth with other species and we should have some reverence for all species on Earth.
  5. We should not take ourselves too seriously.
  6. Love is universal and is the closest thing to an absolute humans can experience

There are others, but I begin with these opinions that are not backed up with scientific fact or religious ideology. However, when I meet my interlocutor, I must attempt to understand the opinions that inform his or her views. Once the point is reached where we each understand the others viewpoint, then we can reach for facts on hand supporting out views and work toward common understanding.

I once had a conservative friend in college. We used to go round and round on many issues. Over time we came an understanding. He believed that each person was only responsible for his or herself and his or her family. If everyone would just take care of his or herself, the world would take care of itself just fine. This view contradicted one of my fundamental starting points that we should have compassion and concern for the well-beings of others (#1). He believed that my views often led to people being worse off. For example, the welfare argument that giving a helping hand to someone promotes laziness. Well, we differed in our fundamental beliefs, but we had a starting point for a discussion. Neither of us was going to change the others view, but I did have to take into account the possibility that my compassion could lead to dire outcomes. I had to ask the question “What if I am wrong?” This is what leads to healthy discussions. If all we have is facts at our disposal when we go into a discussion and repeat the thoughts and ideas of experts with the facts they have provided us, we may be well-informed but we cannot have a discussion on important issues that will lead to productive results.

So, I think we should value opinions over facts. That’s my opinion at least