Opinions and argument

By Legal Eagle

Catherine Deveny has written an article today entitled “Most people are idiots – even the ones who agree with me”. If one was feeling uncharitable, the response would be: “And so are you.”

To be fair, Deveny has some arguments with merit: namely, that we should challenge our beliefs and that we should debate important questions. She further argues that someone who agrees with everything you say is no better than someone who disagrees with everything you say – such a person is not really thinking for themselves.

However, there is one part of her column with which I really disagreed. She says:

I’m talking opinions. Which are basically just “I reckon”. Opinions are a mix of what we know, what we feel, what we’ve experienced and gut instinct.

Why clarify what opinions are? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: most people are idiots. I’m constantly having to remind these idiots that this page is called “opinion” and not “fact” after they have a hilarious go at me saying because I’m a journalist (I’m not) I have a responsibility to produce a balanced argument (I don’t). You lose. I win.

I am a person who naturally reacts with gut instinct and “what I feel”. However, I have also had the luck to be the child of two scientists, and to be trained as a lawyer. I know the fashionable thing these days is to say there are no facts, and that one person’s view is very much the same as another’s. Of course, as a lawyer I know that you can mould the facts to your argument with a judicious use of words and emphasis.

Nonetheless, I despise sloppy reasoning. As I always say to my students, I don’t mind which point of view they take: the important thing is how well it is backed up. It is really important to check whether your arguments are backed up by empirical evidence, or by other sources. Often, after checking the available facts and thinking further about a problem, I have discovered that my initial view is not fully informed, and I have changed my mind. So, for example, in writing this blog, I try not to shoot from the hip and make sure that I always think things through properly.

Of course, some opinions are subjective. I might like the art of Kandinsky, and another person may dislike it. We can both point to reasons why we have that opinion, but in the end, it cannot be said that one person is “right” and the other is “wrong”. It is a matter of personal taste. Other opinions can be objectively verified. I might have the opinion that the moon is made of green cheese. Objective research suggests that I am wrong on that one. I’m still entitled to have that opinion, but it is an opinion without much worth.

I do think that someone who writes a newspaper column has a duty to make sure that the fundamental facts on which she bases her argument are correct. It is often said that the best criminal barristers are those who represent both the prosecution and the defence, because they know both sides of the story. By the same token, the best opinions are those where the author has considered both sides of the story, regardless of which side the author comes down on in the end. This is particularly important for someone who writes in a newspaper, because of the influence she has on the opinions of others. As Deveny notes, some people have a tendency to agree unquestioningly with whatever they read in the paper.

I am a humble blogger, not a journalist, yet I try to make sure that my posts are accurate and if a comment points out that I am in error, I amend my post. For one thing, there’s just the simple pride in doing something properly. For another, a layperson reading this blog might trust my interpretation of the law implicitly, and not possess the resources to pick me up on an error. I would think the duty would be stronger for someone who is paid good money to write for a newspaper. Who cares if you are a blogger, a newspaper opinion writer, a lawyer or Santa Claus?

Opinions are not just a matter of “I reckon”. It makes me so frustrated when people do not bother to at least consider and research the assumptions of fact behind their beliefs. If one’s opinion is based on an erroneous assumption of fact, then it is worth very little. Even an idiot should be able to understand that.

21 Comments

  1. Posted December 17, 2008 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Indeed.

    The trend these days is not to consider the differing opinions and points of view. But actually to cherry pick facts to suit a preconcieved line. Ironically a lot of this is done by traditionalists who’re arguing for Western classical values like objectivity and skepticism against postmodern relativism.

    The worst case thus far I’ve seen is Ann Coulter’s Godless where she uses Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker asserting all sorts of holes in the theory of evolution that she knows full well are bogus because she’s read that book.

    Truth is what you make it.

    This is a fault and a continual problem. I’ve encountered postgrad students who not only can’t deploy deductive reasoning, they don’t even see the need to. And it cuts right across the culture. Just because ‘everything’s subjective’ doesn’t mean you’re always right or that every brainfart you’ve ever had is as valuable as Voltaire’s books.

    But ye cannae say that these days. It might be damaging to someone’s self-esteem. And Lord knows what we really need in this world is a bunch of half-backed addlepated twits wandering around thinking they’re always right and they’re really smart.

    That always delivers the goods. 🙂

  2. Posted December 17, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Whenever my dad volunteers some half-arsed notion about something or other and replies, when called on it, ‘I’m entitled to an opinion’, I reply that yes he is indeed; what he is not entitled to is respect for that opinion, which must be earned, preferably with a few facts or some evidence of having done a bit of reading.

    And whenever my sister says her gut is telling her something or other, I remind her what her gut is full of.

    Needless to say, I’m so looking forward to the family Christmas lunch. Not..

  3. Posted December 17, 2008 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    And whenever my sister says her gut is telling her something or other, I remind her what her gut is full of.

    Sounds nasty, PC — it’s always foul when family things turn into pistols drawn at ten paces.

    We had something of a family reunion a few years ago, and because my family is really large (dad was one of six, mum one of 14, plus lots of outliers all over the place), I discovered just how easy it is for people who may be related genetically but have nothing else in common to not get on. Some of it was quite disturbing, although the crap one of my brothers copped because he’s a biker and his wife is Thai led me to pour a beer over one particularly racist nitwit’s head. My sister did all the organising and swore afterwards that she would never be tempted to do it again.

  4. Ken
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that opinion columns in the press have become branded products. Editors believe readers want to know what to expect when they read Phillip Adams or Miranda Devine: they know they will either nod in agreement or grind their teeth in rage.
    So columns must have all the consistency and quality control of a branded product. No disappointments, no surprises. An Adams column suggesting that Bush might have done one or two things right would be like a bottle of ginger beer with a snail in it.
    Very disturbing to regular readers,
    I believe this is a great pity. As papers lose the news – old by the time it appears in the paper – features and opinions are about all they have left. I would prefer these to be well argued and thought provoking.
    This, by the way, is an abstract of an article I will write some day: “Why a Phillip Adams Column is like a Big Mac”

  5. Patrick B
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    You appear to have missed the point which I would have thought was that opinion pieces have no requirement to be balanced. Most are polemical and, in particular those from the right, rarely appeal to fact. in the case of one of The Australian’a writers this absense of acountabilty extended to wilful misrepresentation of facts.
    Your use of univeristy students’ work as a model is a red herring, the newspaper columnist’s goal is not comparable to a student. A student is being taught to think critically and examined to see whether or not they have learnt that skill. The Columnist is filling column inches with what ever they think will get them over the line until next week.

  6. Ken
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    PB: Certainly there is no requirement that opinion pieces be balanced. Nor is there a requirement that people buy and read newspapers. Newspapers are dying and, I believe their only hope is improvement of editorial content: giving readers stuff that they can’t get elsewhere. Murdoch, whatever you think of his politics, is about the only media owner who believes in print and is investing money in his papers. The Australian has a fairly balanced stable of opinion writers. I just wish they would make me think more often.

  7. Posted December 18, 2008 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    What a great topic! Some random thoughts:
    It is easy to say that we are all entitled to our opinions, the next question is, are you prepared to be responsible for the results if everyone shared that particular opinion (whatever it was)?
    Irresponsible reportage has consequences, like the deaths of Christians in Africa following a bogus press report that a copy of the Koran had been trashed in some western prison.
    Three attitudes towards criticism: (1) masochistic – listen to criticism because you enjoy it (2) moralistic – listen to criticism because it is the right thing to do. (3) self interest – listen to criticism because you might learn something.

  8. Posted December 18, 2008 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    it’s always foul when family things turn into pistols drawn at ten paces.

    Yes. And it has the equal disadvantage of personal interaction. I think mortars or even intercontinental ballistic missiles come in handy.

    led me to pour a beer over one particularly racist nitwit’s head.

    I used to do that. The president of the ALSF almost beat me up at the Uni club for doing ti. It wasn’t the wet head it was because it was his beer. 🙂

  9. Posted December 18, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Ken – Why a Phillip Adams Column is like a Big Mac

    That is grossly unfair. I really can’t tolerate such slanderous rhetoric, such distorted views, such outright lies. A Big Mac has a lot more nutritional value than anything Philip Adams ever did.

    there is no requirement that opinion pieces be balanced

    No. Nor should there be. Unfortunately there’s no requirement that they be interesting either.

  10. Posted December 18, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Rafe #3 – One of the hardest and most valuable lessons in life. Sadly few people take the course.

  11. Posted December 18, 2008 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    the next question is, are you prepared to be responsible for the results

    Indeed as the glorious Emperor Rupert the 1st has decreed one should be responsible unless one is a NanoSerf for His Magnificence and then you can say anything you like.

    All hail Rupert and his vassal Count Malcolm. You will vote for him whether you want to or not. 🙂

  12. John Greenfield
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Perfectly wonderful arguments can be made, even when relying on polemic, straw, selection and confirmation biases, SO LONG AS YOUR INTERLOCOTUR KNOWS YOU ARE AWARE OF THESE SHORTCOMINGS AND CAN INCOPORATE – EITHER EXPLICITYLY OR IMPLICITLY – WHY YOU SEE NO NEED TO BE MORE CIRCUSMPECT.

    Christopher Hitchens certainly has this talent, Coulter may have a tiny bit, Dawkins not much more. But Catharine Deveney is just a dumb bogan bigot. Just how typical is she of the Victorian wymyn’s Left?

  13. John Greenfield
    Posted December 18, 2008 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    when called on it, ‘I’m entitled to an opinion’, I reply that yes he is indeed; what he is not entitled to is respect for that opinion, which must be earned, preferably with a few facts or some evidence of having done a bit of reading.

    And whenever my sister says her gut is telling her something or other, I remind her what her gut is full of.

    You would do well to explore alternative discourse stryles. For example, “I didn’t knw you though that way Dad/Sister” what has led you to form this view”?

    More tips at the ready

  14. Posted December 18, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Oh yes, pouring of the other party’s beer highly recommended.

  15. Posted December 19, 2008 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    For example, “I didn’t knw you though that way Dad/Sister” what has led you to form this view”?
    .
    Yes well that’s something I think’d come in handy at a popular website the name of which I won’t mention. 🙂

  16. Jacques Chester
    Posted December 21, 2008 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    An Adams column suggesting that Bush might have done one or two things right would be like a bottle of ginger beer with a snail in it.

    And like the famous snail-in-a-bottle case, part of the issue comes down to who wrote the column originally.

2 Trackbacks

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    […] I have written before, I do think bloggers have a duty to make sure that what they write is correct: I am a humble […]

  2. […] (Yes, I include the Catherine Devenys of the world with the Alan Joneses here. I am on record as disliking Catherine Deveny‘s approach almost as much as Alan Jones’.) I want our Federal […]

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