April 11, 2014

Some Opinions Are Better Than Others

Opinion
Opinion (Photo credit: Kevin Steinhardt)
We all have opinions. Some of our opinions are based on reason, critical inquiry, and even time-consuming research to learn more about the world around us. These are the sorts of opinions we can defend because we have a reasonable basis for them. We have taken care in how we formed them, doing so with deliberation. We can intelligently explain them to others, and in doing so, we might actually convince them that our opinion is valid even though this does not necessarily mean they will come to share it.

Other opinions reflect nothing more than our moment-to-moment emotional reactions to our surroundings. They evidence little to no thought, and many fall apart with even minimal reflection. If we do take a moment to critically examine them, we may even be ashamed to have ever had such opinions. And this is why many adults have learned to keep such opinions to themselves, lest they be subject to ridicule by others or simply regret launching a half-baked idea.

Sadly, it is this second type of opinion that seems to thrive on social media today, particularly on Twitter. Some of us seem to allow the immediacy of something like Twitter to bypass our normal ability to evaluate what we are tempted to say before putting it out there. This sort of stream-of-consciousness communication can bypass our usual ability to reason, leading some bright people to say some incredibly stupid things.

But this post isn't really about criticizing social media or even how many people behave when they use it. No, I'd rather focus on the title. Is it true that some opinions really are better than others? Specifically, are some opinions better in the sense that they are better in some absolute sense and not only in the eye of the beholder? It seems to me that opinions formed on the basis of rational thought, critical inquiry, research, and the like are better in some sense than the half-baked ones formed solely on the basis of emotional responses...even if they turn out to be wrong.

Consider the example of the sort of first impressions we all make about others when we meet them for the first time. Many of these first impressions turn out to be wrong. But it seems to me that there is a difference between wrong first impressions formed on the basis of data from multiple sources (e.g., what others have told you about a person before you meet them) and those that are nothing more than gut feelings (e.g., "I just don't like the look of him").

Maybe that's a bad example. Too many variables. Consider another one. Two people are faced with the task of buying a car. One invests considerable time visiting dealers, going on test drives, chatting with owners on online forums, and reading independent research on vehicle reliability and comparative reviews. This consumer educates herself so that she ends up knowing more about the strengths and weaknesses of the car than the particular model she is considering than the salespeople. She is an informed buyer. Our second shopper does none of this. He simply likes the look of a particular car and buys it solely on that basis. He's talked to nobody and done no research. He knows nothing about the expected reliability of the car he buys.

In the end, both of our shoppers end up with positive opinions of the cars that they buy. Even if we assume that they are both still happy with their cars 5 years into the future (i.e., their positive opinions were correct in some sense), it seems to me that our first car shopper's initial opinion of her car is better in some meaningful way than that of our second shopper.

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