An Opinionated Take on Opinion
by Jim Chaffee


People tell me I am opinionated, but according to my meaning of the word I am far less opinionated than most. A recent trio of letters to the editor of the Austin American Statesman illustrates what I mean by the word.

The letters regard an interview with a University of Texas biology professor, Camille Parmesan, who said there is no doubt that the recent trend in global warming is a man-made phenomenon.

One of two negative responses attempted to counter Parmesan's comments with a hint of an argument regarding water vapor, the heat of the sun and possible evaporation of the ice caps on Mars. Perhaps there was not enough space in the letter to make this idea cohesive, but one can find its source on the Internet. It contains a flaw hinging on the notion of stability.

Another letter praised the Statesman for making people aware that global warming is real and that people can do something about it. The author gave no indication why she believes global warming is a man-made reality with a human solution, and to my recollection neither does the article.

The third letter, antithetical to the sole favorable response printed by the newspaper, proved the most informative for purposes of this discussion. In a sense, it was equivalent to the favorable reply.

The third writer said that global warming is a hoax, a scare tactic solely to create a problem where none really exists in order to gain government grant money. The writer used emotive language, like "politically correct," and accused the Statesman of bias in not publishing scientists who have data to show that man-made global warming is preposterous. Those scientists went unnamed.

What makes the third letter informative drives to the heart of what I call opinion, though all these letters are nothing if not opinion in the sense I use the word. The third writer is simply more transparent than the other two in making reference to authority as a way to settle an argument.

These letters delineate three concerns: the abstract question of what is meant by knowing something; how we know what we think we know, implying as corollary the measurement of certainty; and how all this relates to education, keeping in mind that in the US informed citizen participation in policy decisions is often given as public education's reason for existence.

To the statement that there are scientists who disagree, as well to the contrary statement that scientists agree, must be asked, What is meant by scientist? Having an advanced degree in a scientific discipline is not the same as being a scientist, since a scientist is one who does science, that is active research in a bounded area amenable to scientific argument. An advanced degree is neither necessary nor sufficient. But method is, since scientific research revolves around well-defined techniques for determining what is known. Refereed journals are essential in filtering out work that is not based on methodology allowing reproduction of results and not based on arguments along scientifically established principles. However, that is not to say that referees cannot suffer from tunnel vision, a common problem in any discipline, and history is replete with examples.

But to the statement that there are scientists who disagree, consider that there are PhDs in astronomy who contend that the Earth is the center of the universe and does not rotate on an axis; that instead the Sun and everything else rotates around the Earth. Does this make it a viable scientific principle? It seems that many of those holding this belief base it on the Bible, namely the scripture in Joshua that says God extended daylight by halting the Sun and Moon, not by stopping the earth's rotation.

My guess is that the reader of this essay believes the Earth revolves around the Sun and rotates on an axis. But why believe this? If you say you know the earth rotates on an axis because of night and day, you fall short because movement of the Sun around the Earth could account for that. So this goes to the second issue raised above, namely, How do you know the Earth revolves around the Sun and rotates on an axis? I would guess it likely your reason reduces to an appeal to authority, though you might bring up Foucalt's pendulum. But can you explain how Foucalt's pendulum shows that the earth rotates on an axis? As few as there are who understand this phenomenon well enough that it does not reduce to an appeal to authority, fewer still have had to compute the effects of Earth rotation on ballistic missile targeting or its effect on signal arrival from some earth satellite. At any rate, if you the reader are unable to explain why you believe as you do without recourse to some authority, including a scientist or the Bible, then your belief is opinion.

In the end, this goes back to education. Which is to say, education by fiat: You are told what is true and given no argument you can analyze before accepting it as fact. If you believe something without a sound argument that can be tested against other arguments or paradigms, then you hold an opinion. It is not knowledge. So education by fiat produces people who do not recognize that they hold opinions as facts. These are opinionated people. To be exact, nearly all their knowledge reduces to opinion.

I personally try not to hold many opinions, except where they involve such globally meaningless terms as good and bad, which are no more than subjective statements referring to the person issuing them. But that gets to the first, more abstract issue of what is meant by knowing something.

For example, it is likely most readers believe the square root of two is not a fraction, that is to say, not a rational number. Why believe this? Because your teacher told you so? This is nothing but appeal to authority.

I bring this up because knowing that the square root of two is not a fraction is inherently different than knowing the Earth revolves around the Sun. In the former case, given the meaning of two, square root, and fraction, and the accepted rules of deduction (there are two major schools of thought in mathematics regarding the proper rules of deduction, though one of them is primary, the other outside the mainstream) one can provide an argument, in English, in sentence paragraph form, that will prove to be airtight. There is no wiggle room in this argument, in the sense that one will know the square root of two is not a fraction just as one knows the outcome of a chess match. There is no doubt and it is a timeless result, not tied to any observation of nature and not requiring data or experiment.

As an exercise, the reader might give such an airtight argument that the square root of two is not a fraction. It requires no mathematics, only the ability to reason and write cogently.

On the other hand, the rational basis for believing the Earth revolves around the Sun is different in a profound sense. There is a theoretical argument owed to Isaac Newton based on something he called gravity, an argument that is now considered wrong in such fine points as spooky action at a distance but that can be shown in some sense an approximation to the currently held theory due to Albert Einstein, called General Relativity. Using Newton's theory of gravitation (or Einstein's) one can demonstrate that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

The difference between this argument and that demonstrating the square root of two is not a fraction is that belief in Newton's gravitational theory itself relies on its ability to predict physical events. One can compute the orbits of earth satellites, for example, and use the theory to put them into orbit, predict where they will be at what times, and modify those orbits. One can also obtain precise information for planetary orbits around the Sun, though Newton's method falls short regarding some minute anomalies in the orbit of Mercury which are corrected by Einstein's theory. But it is possible that the geocentric theory of the universe can be rigged to perform the same functions, though it will certainly become painfully complex as is seen by examining the unwieldy systems that preceded Newton.

The conclusion is that scientific knowledge is different from mathematical knowledge, since the former requires some sort of empirical verification, based on some method for validating the model, whereas mathematical knowledge requires only an airtight argument based on some system of rules of deduction.

So what? Where does it make any difference?

It certainly makes no difference to daily life for most people, at least insofar as work and leisure and the business of living. But it does make a difference. One way is that acknowledged by the geocentricists, who understand that believing the Earth to be the center of the universe places man in a different light than believing the Earth is merely one member of a system revolving around a star we call the Sun, potentially an insignificant planet among myriad in an impersonal universe. That riles them because it means man is not the measure of all things. And this goes to another issue, evolution, which is an important debate far beyond science. In fact, in the debate about evolution, the meaning of science has come into question, with a majority of the US citizenry deciding that evolution is not science. Or Science, since in the end the teaching of evolution or creationism will be just like the teaching of what little astronomy people learn, education by fiat. The evolution debate is about whether we want to remove man one more step from special status, to put man one step closer to being merely another aspect of nature. And the arguments on both sides by the uninformed are ludicrous, often couched in the mistaken reasoning behind questions like, If I evolved from apes, why are they still here?

It also makes a difference in another sense. Professor Parmesan stated in the interview that humanity will become extinct in a few hundred years. Maybe, maybe not. At this point, that is surely an opinion, since it is based upon extrapolation subject to many caveats. But the real issue behind this statement is once again whether man is part of nature or somehow above and beyond nature, special as it were. God's creation, perhaps. Or special in some other sense, as with Existentialism or New Ageism.

This goes back again to the nature of education and the meaning of the word opinion. Pre-college and much college education in the US is the teaching of orthodoxy in a number of areas, including economics, politics, science, mathematics, and history, and maybe also art and literature. It is about drawing boundaries outside which one is not to venture, areas which shall not be questioned, areas off limits. There is no mechanism for demonstrating why this orthodoxy should be accepted except by recourse to authority. So it is no wonder everyone feels their opinion as good as any other since they have failed to examine the underpinnings for their beliefs in any number of areas. They have not been given sound arguments to support what they are taught and are unlikely to understand such anyway. Unable to understand rational arguments, they cannot see the implicit and underlying assumptions nor critically analyze the logic.

One thing seems certain to me, though I admit it is an opinion: I am certain that some things will be either true or false beyond your beliefs regarding them, though how you believe regarding them can have consequences. As an example, I am of the opinion that if your head is penetrated by a projectile moving at high velocity you will likely be seriously damaged or even die. American Indians who did the ghost dance doubted this, as did certain tribal people in Africa recently. In both cases, their belief in magic proved no protection against high velocity projectiles. So will there be consequences in the argument regarding the topic erupting around Professor Parmesan's interview.

One thing in that exchange of letters did stick out. Of the three letters published, not one argued for or against the analysis showing the high correlation between the trend in carbon dioxide found in large ice cores and the use of fossil fuel since the industrial revolution. Perhaps this is due to the likely fact that none of the letter writers understands regression analysis in statistics. The closest thing to an argument was that regarding water vapor, but it makes no allowance for stability: just because water vapor is the most common greenhouse gas does not mean it is the unstable factor. It might be that small fluctuations in carbon dioxide could cause significant fluctuations in temperature, that is to say, the system is unstable with respect to carbon dioxide. Note that I used the word might, since I am no expert in this, but I don't need to be to see where the crucial issues are to be found. In order for arguments to be scientific, they need to be clothed in explicit parametric models that allow predictions open to experimental verification.

Of course, this begs the question whether the scientific approach provides information regarding reality, assuming there exists such a thing as reality (though I doubt many would want to test the assumption against the speeding projectile to the head). It certainly is an opinion that science reveals something outside oneself. For mathematics it is irrelevant, since no one claims that the square root of two has physical existence, but the argument regarding the Earth orbiting the Sun or vice versa for some will likely have to wait until there is a way to view the event from a vantage point outside the solar system. I don't know if humans will be extinct in a few hundred years, but that is an irrelevant question anyway. As Keynes was supposed to have said regarding statistics dealing with long run behavior, in the long run we're all dead. As a question for this generation, the slow effect of pollution is like sitting in a tub of water where someone raises the temperature one degree per hour. How do you know when to scream?

It does question the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. But it is my opinion that examining arguments for hidden assumptions, unstated assumptions, crucial assumptions is what education should be about. By not making it so, we run the risk of producing a society of authority-driven zombies of the accepted dogma, an entire generation of sheep.

I have opinions regarding food, drink, reading, music, and related personal issues. I have reasons for them, too, but in the end they come from doing what I like, not what others tell me I ought to like. Just as I don't believe anything based on what authority tells me I ought to believe. Convince me. Argue for your belief rationally, elevating it to something more than opinion. Otherwise you are opinionated.


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