From Here and Back Again
By Jim Coufal
(Cazenovia, NY- Aug. 2012) Over the years I taught, many students told me, “My opinion is just as good as yours.” I politely replied that while their right to their opinion was just as good as mine, their opinion itself might not be, giving examples.
For instance, they might have the opinion that the Holocaust never occurred, while I held the opposite. Historical facts support the occurrence of the Holocaust; therefore, while they could hold their opinion, it was wrong and could lead to difficulties.
The problem today is that opinion has become the new fact.
An opinion is defined as “a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter.” What is important is that is further defined as a “belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge.”
An opinion is not a lie unless it is offered as a statement of fact, as being true. An opinion is related to a lie in that the latter is used to create a false or misleading impression. This would be a lie of commission. If facts important to the discussion are left out, it becomes a lie of omission. Lies of omission are common in education, but also in politics and elsewhere.
An opinion offered as fact can thus become a lie.
Many in power have absorbed the idea that if you tell a lie, tell a big one, tell it often, defend it vigorously, and it will pass into the realm of “fact,” or at least common opinion.
With so much action carried on over the Internet today, the opportunity to read body language is foregone, making statements seen on the Internet one-dimensional. Following human tendency to seek support for one’s opinion, it is easy to find opinions that do just that and then pass them along as established fact.
The least one can do is to frequent sites where different points of view are presented. Better, take the time to investigate the truth of the statements made and analyze them as to likely consequences. In rhetoric, a distinction is made between an “assertion: and a claim.” Both are declarative sentences, but assertions are made without evidence as to truth, while claims include such supporting evidence.
Assertions often are nothing but opinions cloaked in the language of fact.
Assertions also tend to use authority, tradition, dogma and other less-than-empirical ways to provide any support. Believe it because so-and-so said it, because it has always been held so or because a holy book has said it is so.
None of these are beyond the power of inquiry and criticism.
A few examples follow. The dispute over who was the better baseball player, or at least the better homerun hitter – Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or Bobby Bonds – continues. It took off when Aaron broke Babe’s long-standing career homerun record. Ruth hit 714 home runs, Aaron hit 755. But does that tell the whole story?
It took Aaron 12,364 at bats to hit the 755 home runs. Ruth hit his 714 in 8,399 at bats and, if he had as many at-bats as Aaron, it is calculated he would have hit 1,051 home runs. Bonds came along and broke Aaron’s record, but he, too, played 350 more games and had 1,000 more at-bats than Ruth, who by these measures still might be declared the best.
Add more hard facts to the debate, and you find Ruth had a lifetime batting average of .342 while Bonds was .298. Ruth had a better slugging percentage, more RBIs per game and led in most other batting categories. He hit 45 or more home runs in nine different seasons.
The next best are Willie Mays and Harmon Killibrew, who each did it four times. This says nothing about such hard-to-measure things as the livelier ball of today, the better pitching of today or even lifestyles of these people.
So how to choose?
Regarding sex education, common wisdom (opinion) has it that frank discussions of human sexuality will lead to more sexual experimentation among teens. Research shows that what takes place is just the opposite. Common wisdom has it that once released from prison, sex offenders have a very high likelihood of committing another sex offense. The U.S. Justice Department finds that sex offenders have a strikingly lower recidivism rate than any other non-sexual felony group.
These facts are not likely to change the minds of those who hold the opinions in the common wisdom because they are emotional attachments supporting what it is one wants to believe.
Rep. Allen West (R – Florida) recently said that 78-81 member of Congress are members of the Communist Party. He would name no names or give any evidence, yet his words are spread by the media to be heard by those who want to believe such nonsense and act upon it. It appears that he was not offering an opinion, simply lying.
Will he be held accountable in any way?
Mitt Romney is famous for his flip-flopping on issues. He certainly can be said to be pandering to his audience, but is he offering opinions or straightforward telling lies?
We have an issue with wind farms locally. The Guardian reports that Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing group funded by the Koch brothers, and other similar groups, have ramped-up an offensive on multiple fronts to turn the American public against wind farms and Obama’s energy agenda.
“Now a confidential strategy memo seen by the Guardian advises using ‘subversion’ to build a national movement of wind farm protesters.” Of this and other efforts of Americans for Prosperity, the Washington Post said one ad in particular was full of “erroneous attacks, made without shame.”
Think of the thoroughly disproved yet continuing, attacks on Obama’s citizenship and religious beliefs.
Robert Green Ingersoll said that, “A fact will fit every other fact in the universe, and that is how you can tell – whether it is or not a fact. A lie will not fit anything except a lie made for the express purpose, and finally, someone gets tired of lying, and the last lie will not fit the next fact.”
But it the meantime, the damage is done.
Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at email@example.com.