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Peer-reviewed, evidence-based opinions

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Once upon a time, a young woman dated a young man. The two were happily browsing in the Kloof Street Exclusive Books when he said how much he likes that particular bookstore. She asked him why and he said it’s because they’ve got the best selection of books, especially ones on sociology.

Fast-forward one or two years and we find the same woman having a conversation with someone about Exclusive Books. The unnamed person says something about Exclusive Books in general and the young woman says that, by Jove! the Exclusive Books in Kloof Street has a superb collection of books.

The unnamed person asks her why she says this and…she doesn’t have an answer. She can’t tell the unnamed person it’s her then boyfriend’s opinion. That’d be an embarrassing thing to do. So she quickly changes the conversation by shouting “Look! There’s a bright shiny thing behind you!’

I was that young woman circa 2009. That was when I realised to not ever adopt someone else’s opinion on something. Unless, of course, the opinion is evidence-based AND it’s something I find to be true.

It’s been serving me pretty well but I often encounter others who still think it’s an OK thing to do. To present an opinion without giving a reason why it’s a good one to hold. They present these opinions mostly in blog comments and in Facebook group threads. Those are the two places where I tend to have most of my debates.

I once blogged about how we shouldn’t have low expectations of the masses. And I still think (I have evidence-based reasons, I promise) that we should expect more of  ’normal’ people. These people influence our live: they sit on school boards, they’re our employers, they’re store owners. And their choices and reasons for doing things can mean that we live a good life or it can mean that we feel forced to seek asylum in a country that won’t prosecute queers.

Remember, democracy is based on the appeal to majority fallacy: we do what the majority wants. So if the majority of the people around you want to prosecute queers, then that’s what’s going to happen. And no amount of reasoning with them will prevent this if they don’t base their opinions on sound, rational, evidence-based facts.

The conversations I have won’t directly influence which president people will vote for. Nor will those conversations decide whether to provide free ARVs to poor people. But it’s still important to be intellectually rigorous and to base an opinion on facts. To ask ‘why?’ and to probe deeper, to find the answer. To not just say that the MyCiti buses are safer than trains, but to ask *why* that is. Or to ask *why* censorship is a bad thing.

And to live a life that harms no-one.

So feel free to try this next time: ask someone ‘why do you say that?’ This might surprise them: few of us question others’ opinions; we accept it as their ‘worldview’ and we forget that this ‘worldview’ doesn’t happen in a vacuum, free of outside influences.

Written by joymaric

May 19th, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Peer-reviewed, evidence-based opinions'

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  1. Nowadays there’s a lot of scholarship about testimony. It turns out that taking someone’s word for it is often a respectable way of learning about the world. And that ALWAYS demanding reasons is practically impossible, and theoretically undesirable.

    youknowwhoIam

    19 May 12 at 5:36 pm

  2. (I forgot to add: please don’t disemvowel or in any way redact this message.)

    youknowwhoIam

    19 May 12 at 5:37 pm

  3. In which circumstances is it a good idea to take someone’s word for it?

    Surely this isn’t always a good idea? And surely we apply certain criteria to the person’s qualifications/credentials when we decide whether we’re going to take their word for x, y or z?

    And even if they are scholars in a relevant field, we can still ask them to cite references for whatever it is they’re claiming.

    The issue of whether it’s practical to always ask for references is not one that’s applicable to this post: I never said we should *always* demand reasons for everything.

    joymaric

    20 May 12 at 11:39 am

  4. In your comment above, the remarks/questions in your first three sentences capture succinctly the kernel of the scholarship I was referring to. And to get a glimpse of how difficulty the subject is, and how close we are to answering the questions you’ve raised, one would have to wade through reams of (interesting) papers.

    In reply to your last sentene, I must remind you that you wrote this:
    “when I realised to not ever adopt someone else’s opinion on something. Unless, of course, the opinion is evidence-based AND it’s something I find to be true.”

    It’s true that you didn’t use the word ‘always’, but if you read the quoted sentence and see the work being done by the words ‘not ever,’ ‘unless,’ ‘AND’ (note the capitals,) and ‘I find,’ you’ll see it amounts to the same thing.

    youknowwhoIam

    20 May 12 at 1:45 pm

  5. You’re conflating two issues here: 1) to not ever adopt someone else’s opinion on something with 2) always asking for a citation.

    Those are two seperate issues.

    “In your comment above, the remarks/questions in your first three sentences capture succinctly the kernel of the scholarship I was referring to”

    I don’t know what you mean with the above sentence.

    “And to get a glimpse of how difficulty the subject is, and how close we are to answering the questions you’ve raised, one would have to wade through reams of (interesting) papers.”

    So you don’t know the answer to my question yet you make the opposite claim, ie “It turns out that taking someone’s word for it is often a respectable way of learning about the world.”

    joymaric

    20 May 12 at 2:08 pm

  6. 1. “You’re conflating two issues here…”
    I’m not conflating, I’m responding to a compound proposition that YOU introduced linking parts 1) and 2). For you’re saying something like ‘Don’t adopt someone else’s position unless you have an acceptable citation.’ This is not a direct quote, but a paraphrase of the actual quote that I offered in my last remark. So if you wanted these two things (adopting a position and asking for evidence) to be treated seperately, why in the world would you write a post that linked them?

    2. What I mean by the sentence you don’t understand is:
    a) Read your comment in this thread dated 20 May 12 at 11:39 am.
    b) That comment has five sentences.
    c) The first three of those five sentences mean something.
    d) That meaning is a crisp paraphrase of the questions that are explored in the scholarship around testimony.
    capice?

    3. “So you don’t know the answer to my question yet you make the opposite claim…”
    Three things:
    a) You’ve quoted me accurately and relevantly.
    b) The claim I make (which you correctly cite) isn’t the opposite to your claim: Since you’re claiming that one should ALWAYS ask for and satisfy oneself with the reasons, the opposite claim is that you should NEVER ask for and satisfy yourself with the reasons. My claim (which, by now, you’ve guessed I’m just parroting from someone else) is that serious efforts at studying the problem show that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: Often you have to ask for satisfactory reasons and often you shouldn’t.
    c) You’re right that I take an opposing (though not opposite) view to yours. And you’re right that I do so in spite of not knowing the answer to your (thought provoking) question(s). But this is entirely unremarkable. It happens all the time that attempts at unearthing an answer serve only to show how elusive the truth really is, and how unsatisfactory earlier attempts at answering the question are. This is the basis of a three things I like:
    * nonmonotonic logic.
    * the adage that ‘the more you learn the less you know.’
    * Russell’s observation that “The problem with the world is that the arrogant are cocksure, and the wise full of doubt.”

    youknowwhoIam

    20 May 12 at 4:26 pm

  7. You *ARE* conflating the two issues, unknown person.

    Never adopting someone else’s opinion *is* different to always asking people to backup their reasoning.

    I linked the two things in my post because, to me, they’re closely related. But I never said we should always ask people to backup their claims.

    I’d love to, of course, just because I’m a nit-picky type of person.

    joymaric

    20 May 12 at 8:10 pm

  8. One of the two issues you’ve accused me of conflating (with the other one) is an issue that I’ve not even written about – i.e. “asking people to backup their reasoning”
    Please read my posts carefully. Spelling errors and all.

    “But I never said we should always ask people to backup their claims.”

    I never said that you ever said that.
    What I did say is that you effectively said that we should always be able to back up our own claims.

    I can only refer you to what you’ve actually written on this very thread. See the reference in my 13h45 post above.

    I’m glad you admit that you “linked the two things in my post because, to me, they’re closely related.” That’s exactly what prompted me to respond in the first place. If the close relation is evident to you, why blame *me* for conflation?

    youknowwhoIam

    21 May 12 at 12:49 am

  9. This is what you said:

    “Nowadays there’s a lot of scholarship about testimony. It turns out that taking someone’s word for it is often a respectable way of learning about the world. And that ALWAYS demanding reasons is practically impossible, and theoretically undesirable.”

    joymaric

    21 May 12 at 12:15 pm

  10. I know I said that, but so what?
    (i.e. what part of what I’ve said/asked before is the quote meant to relate to, what are you driving at, etc.)

    youknowwhoIam

    22 May 12 at 11:06 pm

  11. “And that ALWAYS demanding reasons is practically impossible, and theoretically undesirable”

    This didn’t follow from anything I said in my original piece.

    joymaric

    23 May 12 at 7:36 am

  12. Of course it didn’t follow, which is exactly why I wrote it! (i.e. if you’re missing something I may want to point it out.)

    I don’t get what you’re not getting, but I’ll try to break it down once more:

    1. You wrote “I realised to NOT EVER adopt someone else’s opinion on something. Unless, of course, the opinion is evidence-based AND it’s something I find to be true.””

    2. point 1. implies that you must ALWAYS demand reasons (either from your interlocutor, or from yourself) before adopting someone else’s position.

    3. point 1.’s insistense that the opinion is evidence-based implies that the basis is independent of your faith in the interlocutor.

    4. point 1.’s insistence that “it’s something *I* find to be true” implies that the adopter of the belief must have an ability to assess the evidence independently of the interlocutor.

    5. We have opinions about a wide range of issues.

    6. Many of these issues are in domains in which we are patently unqualified to assess evidence independently.

    7. An example supporting 6. is AIDS. Somewhere on your blog you imply that it’s a good idea to provide antiretroviral drugs to poor people.

    8. You have no training in virology, or in developmental economics.

    9. Because of 8. you are unqualified to satisfy yourself with evidence backing up the claim in 7.

    10. The problem in 9. applies to many domains (politics, literature, art appreciation, transport safety, self medication, psychological health, etc.)

    11. 5. and 10. imply that the problem in 9. infects our beliefs.

    12. 4. and 11. imply that the we need the ability to assess evidence independently in a variety of domains of expertise.

    13. The ability referred to in 12. is practically impossible to obtain, as it requires training and experience in a wide variety of fields.

    14. There is scholarship around testimony that argues ‘taking their word for it’ is an acceptable mode of belief adoption under the right circumstances.

    15. Accepting the scientific consensus is an example of ‘taking their word for it.’

    16. The acceptance referred to in 15. is a much more efficient belief-adoption strategy for persons outside of the relevant domain of expertise.

    17. Theoretically, efficiency is desirable.

    18. 13. and 17. support my claim that “…ALWAYS demanding reasons is practically impossible, and theoretically undesirable”

    Now I admit that this post is hair-splitting and verbose, but that’s what happens when you’re called upon to be explicit.

    I’ve taken pains to label not only the propositions, but also the steps taken to move between them. So if you’re still feeling that:

    a) I’m not referring to what you’ve written.
    b) I’m drawing an erroneous judgement from your writing.
    c) some other error(s) slipped in.
    d) all of the above

    you now have the luxury of pointing out the error by number(s).

    (and then please telling me what exactly is wrong.)

    youknowwhoIam

    24 May 12 at 10:04 am

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