One of the funniest things I saw in the wake of John Baird’s resignation was a tweet wherein the tweeter boldly stated: Baird was the greatest foreign affairs minister Canada ever had. He then made sure we understood. “You may think that’s my opinion but it’s a fact.” This is funny on several levels.
First of all, we all know this guy. He is given to making bold pronouncements, with great confidence about a wide number of subjects. He probably truly believes what he is saying. And he has frequently been told: well, that’s your opinion. Or perhaps more cuttingly — Prove it. He sputters a bit, throws out a few random statements and then says — see, he is the greatest.
It is the shear boldness of it all that sometimes carries the day. Because the sad fact, we reward pigheadedness (called determination) and aggression (called self-confidence) more than we ever reward nuanced, conditional but fact-based arguments. As Steven Colbert brilliantly coined it, we value (or at least some of us do) truthiness over truth. It is not simply a disease of the right; it is a disease of lazy thinking.
Opinions are simply statements that arise from our values. Values aren’t a bad thing. Everyone has to believe in something. As the t-shirt says: I believe I’ll have another beer.
But seriously, value systems may have internal consistency (though often they don’t: pro-life people are frequently keen on both the death penalty and war as an instrument of foreign policy) but they are rarely logical or evidence based. I believe this and don’t confuse me with the facts — a joke, yes, but one that those of us who are somewhat self aware tell mostly on ourselves.
Facts are clear cut. For example it is a fact that income inequality is increasing in the United States. It is easy to find reliable data to show that is true. Some people are of the opinion that this is a bad thing and represents the breakdown of the social contract. Others are of the opinion it is a good thing and represents the final and justified liberation of the entrepreneurial spirit.
Both are legitimate opinions about that fact. So where do we go from there? The sensible thing to do is to begin to ask good questions about the impact that fact has on other measurable facts. What does inequality do to crime rates, for example, or to health outcomes? Those who value facts over opinions — which we should all do — will ask those questions. Those who don’t say the questions are illegitimate and those who want to ask them misguided.
But maybe that’s just my opinion.
And that’s ten minutes.