From Abracadabra to Zombies
My Opinion on Opinions
In the fall of 1974, I landed my first full-time teaching job. My doctoral dissertation had been published earlier that year, but all I had to show for it was a piece of paper signed by Ronald Reagan (who was governor of California at the time) and several hundred rejection notices from philosophy departments around the country. Lassen College hired me to teach philosophy, creative writing, music appreciation, sociology, and journalism. In addition, I was hired as the baseball coach. I was hired as a one-year replacement for a teacher who taught philosophy, creative writing (he'd actually published some poems), music appreciation (he was an accomplished musician), and skiing [He was an accomplished skiier and climber: his name is Joe Fitschen and he's written a book I highly recommend]. My Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at San Diego meant little to getting the job. My willingness to spread myself thin and my showing up to the interview in jeans and a pullover shirt were more important. I had no doubt that I was qualified to teach philosophy. My qualifications for the other duties were ludicrous: I had written a scholarly book and a number of pathetic poems; I play guitar but can't read music, and I hardly know the difference between an opera and a ballet; I minored in sociology; I wrote letters to the editor; and I was decent baseball player until I was cut after my freshman year at the University of Notre Dame. Why was I hired? The school was desperate. Why would I take such a job? I was desperate. Another teacher went on leave and I was hired for a second year. That year I taught Native American Studies. I drew the line at Bomb Shelter Management. The Dean of Instruction was disappointed in me when I turned that one down.
The only philosophy course Lassen College had at that time was an introductory course. I got a course in Logic approved by the curriculum committee. Twenty-five students signed up; five finished the course. Three stayed because they liked me; one stayed because he didn't know how to drop a course; and one actually understood the material from Irving Copi's classic, Introduction to Logic. Fortunately, soon after arriving at Lassen I was introduced to Howard Kahane’s Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life. I replaced Copi's book with Kahane's and have never looked back. I was eventually hired by Sacramento City College to teach philosophy and humanities courses, including logic. I taught there for thirty years and, until I wrote my own text, used Kahane's book through several editions.
Nobody called Kahane's text a critical thinking text in 1971, when the book was first published. At that time, two other expressions were vying for primacy: ‘informal logic’ and ‘practical logic’. The publisher had a blurb for the book on the back of the 10th edition (which I looked at before participating in a critical thinking workshop for the Amazing Meeting 5) that notes that it “puts critical thinking skills into a context that students will retain and use throughout their lives.” (The text is now in its 11th edition and has had a co-author since Kahane's death in 2001.) A blurb about the author notes that Kahane was one of the founders of the “critical thinking” movement. Kahane, who had already published a popular formal logic text, wanted the new text to be practical. It included no formal logic. No Aristotle. No Venn diagrams. No truth tables. No sentential or predicate logic. No tedious exercises trying to symbolize ordinary language arguments. Instead, there are chapters on advertising, textbooks, and the mass media, and how they affect our thinking. There is a chapter that focuses on how language can be used to mislead and deceive us. Traditional "baby" logic texts focused on uses of language; Kahane focused on abuses of language. There are several chapters on fallacies in reasoning, the kinds of fallacies it was not too difficult to find examples of in daily life, many of them supplied by advertisers or by public figures, especially politicians. Kahane was the first of the textbook writers, as far as I know, to introduce the study of doublespeak into a logic text.
Kahane's text appeared too political to some, but it was actually neutral. Each new edition changed its examples, depending on who was in power. In some editions, Republicans look like fools; in others, the Democrats got their turn to serve as bad examples of reasoning.
Kahane was right in exposing the way language is used to manipulate thought. We now know that this manipulation runs deeper than any of us were aware of in the 1970s. "Harsh interrogation" is doublespeak for "torture." The current euphemism replaced "debriefing," "enhanced coercive interrogation," and the like. (Former CIA director Porter Goss said: “we don’t torture, we do debriefings. Torture doesn’t get results. We get results with our methods.”) We now know that even if people know what terms like 'harsh interrogation' or 'rendition' mean, the expressions have little or no emotive content and evoke little emotion. Thus, they don't evoke much response. Think of "collateral damage." We know the expression means that innocent men, women, and children were killed in a military attack, but the expression fails to evoke much feeling for those innocent people. The expression arouses little call to action that might express opposition to dropping bombs on or shooting missiles into areas heavily populated by civilians. Kahane's section on the emotive and cognitive meaning of words was a major contribution to the creation of what we now call critical thinking textbooks. Doublespeak continues, however, and combating it may seem useless at times. But where would we be if we did or said nothing at all about abuses of language? Would Alberto Gonzales still be Attorney General of the United States?
Since first using Kahane's text I have been sympathetic to the view that critical thinking instruction should be about more than just skills like recognizing contradictions and identifying fallacies. I tried to encourage my students to develop a disposition to critically examine the presuppositions of their own culture as expressed in textbooks, TV news, daily newspapers, political speeches and policies, religions, science, and in their personal values and beliefs. I wanted my students to have no sacred cows and to become skilled in making judgments about whatever subject they were investigating. I wanted them to understand that a critical thinker doesn't just have opinions, but has cogent reasons for those opinions. Skepticism is a useful tool in the process of evaluating evidence and arguments, but it is not the goal of critical thinking. Suspending judgment until all the evidence and arguments have been fairly evaluated is essential to arriving at the most reasonable judgments. Suspending judgment, which may have been the goal of some of the ancient Greek skeptics, is not the goal of critical thinking. Making informed judgments is the goal.
A question I was asked frequently over my thirty-five years of teaching college students was: Do you want our opinion in our essays? My stock answer was: Of course. I want your well-reasoned opinions. But I don't want a list of your beliefs. Many of my students had been wrongly taught that facts are good, opinions are bad. How many times have we heard: "that's not a fact; that's just your opinion." We've seen this sentiment expressed by many creationists, who think that theories are opinions and evolution, being a theory, is not a fact but an opinion. Evolution, however, is both a fact and an opinion (a theory). It is a fact that evolution has occurred and there are various theories that try to explain how it occurred. There is a common misconception that facts are opposed to opinions. This error seems to be one of the chief cognitive deficits of those who think they have offered a meaningful criticism of something they disagree with by simply asserting that their opponent is expressing his opinions.
At one of the annual critical thinking conferences sponsored by Sonoma State University, a speaker claimed that he had tracked down this erroneous opinion on opinions and found that many years ago (in the 1930s, I think) sociologists used to give a critical thinking test that asked people to determine whether each item on a list was (a) a fact or (b) an opinion. (This was more than twenty years ago, so I hope you'll forgive me for not recalling who the speaker was.) Some of my students claimed that they'd been asked the same thing on standardized tests that claim to be evaluating something meaningful about a person's critical thinking skills. Students in critical thinking courses should be able to distinguish statements of fact from statements that express judgments, of course. But to ask them to distinguish facts from opinions on a list of items is not the same thing.
I include the following in chapter two of my Becoming a Critical Thinker text:
6.1 Claims used to state facts or to state opinions
As we said in the first chapter, facts are what we take to be certain or true and that we consider unreasonable to doubt. Opinions, on the other hand, are often contrasted with facts as being uncertain and reasonable to doubt. For example, if someone claims (1) she perceived a dark object of human proportions moving across a field at night and (2) she believed that the object was her neighbor, her first claim might be taken as a fact but the second claim would be taken as an opinion. The difference seems to be due simply to the amount of interpretation the perceiver does. If the perception requires simple and ordinary sense perception (e.g. of shapes and colors) and a minimal amount of interpretation, the event perceived is considered a fact. If the perception requires making judgments that go beyond simple sense perception (that a shape is the shape of one’s neighbor) the event related is considered an opinion. The opinion may turn out to be true, however. So, it is not accurate to say that facts are certain and true, while opinions are not. Some opinions are based on mounds of evidence and have a high degree of probability.
Another reason for not distinguishing facts and opinions as certain versus uncertain is that ‘fact’ is also used to mean ‘event’, ‘actuality’, or ‘reality’. Many things which are claimed to be actualities or realities turn out not to be so after all. [The person might have been hallucinating the colors and shapes, for example.] What was claimed to be a fact turns out to be false.
Rather than think of opinions as uncertain claims, it would be better to think of them as beliefs that reflect judgments. Judgments reflect interpretations or evaluations. It may be a fact that the local river is filled with dead fish, but it is a judgment (opinion) that the fish died because of lack of food. That judgment, however, might come to be taken as a fact (i.e., as certain) if the evidence supports it beyond a reasonable doubt. There is, in other words, no clear line that separates facts from opinions in terms of certainty. Perhaps it would be less confusing if the distinction were made between statements of fact and statements of opinion, rather than between facts and opinions.
Determining whether something is a fact requires knowing whether or not it is true. Determining whether something is a statement of fact requires knowing only whether or not it is stated as if it were true. Determining whether it is a fact that the fish died because of lack of food requires more specific and detailed knowledge than would be required to determine whether the statement “The fish died because of lack of food” is stated as a fact or as an opinion. It is obvious that it is stated as a fact. If it were stated as an opinion, the speaker would indicate this by using expressions such as ‘it is my opinion that’ [the fish died because of....], or [the fish] ‘might have’ [died because of....] or [the fish] ‘probably’ [died because of]....
In sum, facts and opinions each run the gamut from uncertain to very certain.
[note: the above excerpted material has been slightly revised]
Ask yourself: is it a fact or an opinion that the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship in 1924? If they won the championship, then it's a fact. The certainty of the claim should depend on what you know to be true. Does the statement become an opinion if the Celtics didn't win the NBA championship in 1924? No, but it then becomes certain that the claim is false. Is it a fact or an opinion that cigarette smoke is carcinogenic? It's a judgment and therefore it's an opinion, but it's about as certainly true as any empirical causal claim can be. Is it a fact or an opinion that child abuse should be illegal? Most people would probably say it's true and they believe that if something is a fact then it's true. Does it matter that philosophers claim that only statements can be true or false, and that imperatives are not statements and therefore are neither true nor false?
I haven't updated my critical thinking text since the second edition was published in 2005, but if I were to update the exercise on identifying and distinguishing statements of fact and statements of opinion, I would add these two statements to the exercise:
1. Global warming poses a dire threat to human civilization that is second only to nuclear weapons.*
2. Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.*
By the time my students have come to the exercise, they should have read the following:
3.4 Sneaking in judgmental words: opinions put forth as facts
Another way to keep others from thinking is to use judgmental words that evaluate the situation so they can be spared the agony of thinking for themselves. There is nothing wrong with making judgments and using the appropriate words to express those judgments. However, some writers may give you their evaluation of the situation under the guise of a factual report. For example, a writer says that “an accurate assessment of the situation was made by the Pentagon” or “the President took justifiable pride in signing the Trade Agreement with China.” The writer is making judgments for you, telling you that an assessment is accurate or suggesting that a trade agreement was a good one. There are always those who are ready to give us the right view, the correct opinion, trustworthy advice, reliable information, or the true story about some scoundrel, dishonest barracuda, interested party, pervert, or communist dupe! Beware of such language. It indicates people less interested in having you think than in having you think as they do.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the successful 1992 campaign in Colorado to pass a constitutional amendment barring laws that specifically protect homosexuals from discrimination. The leader of the campaign, Will Perkins, stated that “Language doesn’t shape the campaign--it is the campaign.” The hope was to influence and shape public opinion by characterizing homosexuals as people with a sexual preference rather than sexual orientation, who have an agenda rather than goals to secure special rights rather than their civil rights. On the other side, gay activists were trying to get the term “sexual preference” eliminated from public discourse because it implies that homosexuality is chosen rather than given to a person by nature or nurture. Each side recognized that the words used to frame the issues would affect how people would be encouraged to think about those issues without actually thinking about the issues.
Opinions don't always come with nice indicators like 'my opinion is....' Many opinions are stated as facts. Being stated as a fact suggests certainty, but being stated as a fact doesn't make something a fact.
The point is that language is fluid, most terms have several uses, and one of the most common abuses of language is to criticize an argument or explanation as being an opinion or 'just an opinion' and think that you have said something profound or meaningful. Your claim is about as important as saying about Einstein's special theory of relativity that "it's just his opinion" or "it's just his ideas." Opinions run the gamut from wild speculation based on almost no evidence (like the opinion that quantum holograms explain psychic phenomena) to strongly supported positions (such as the view that humans are a significant causal factor in global warming or that HIV causes AIDS), to the nearly indisputable (such as cigarette smoke is carcinogenic).
A critical thinker doesn't make empty claims and try to pass them off as reasonable criticisms, which is what one does when one says nothing more about another's argument than that it's an opinion. A critical thinker notes when an opinion is put forth without any support, perhaps, or notes errors, falsehoods, or weaknesses in the reasons given for an opinion. But one identifies oneself as a weak thinker with little cognitive ability if all one can muster up against a position you dislike or disagree with is "it's an opinion." We already know that without even knowing what you're talking about. What we want to know is "Is the opinion backed by cogent reasons?" If not, tell us what is wrong with the evidence presented. Don't think you've told us anything interesting or valuable if all you can tell us is that it's wrong or biased. If you can't tell us why it's wrong, you're wasting our time.
Unlike many of the people who criticize my work, I'm interested in getting it right. I don't just list my opinions on UFOs, 9/11 conspiracies, homeopathy, psi, etc. I present a case for my positions. Nobody benefits from pseudo-criticism that asserts only that that someone has stated an opinion. You might as well criticize somebody for "having an idea." Stating opinions or having ideas are not faults to be identified by a critical thinker.
I truly am interested in my opponents' opinions as long as they are well-reasoned and backed by solid evidence and argument. Otherwise, if all you have to say is "you're wrong" or "you're just giving your opinion," please keep your empty claims to yourself. You're just blowing air and you've got onions and other foul odors on your breath.
That's my opinion, anyway.