Tag Archives: opinions

Facts are not always more important than opinions: here’s why

The Conversation

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The message over the doorway to London’s Kirkaldy Testing Museum. But don’t be too quick to believe the facts and dismiss the opinions. Flickr/Kevo Thomson, CC BY-NC-ND

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

Which is more important, a fact or an opinion on any given subject? It might be tempting to say the fact. But not so fast… The Conversation

Lately, we find ourselves lamenting the post-truth world, in which facts seem no more important than opinions, and sometimes less so.

We also tend to see this as a recent devaluation of knowledge. But this is a phenomenon with a long history.

As the science fiction writer Issac Asimov wrote in 1980:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.

The view that opinions can be more important than facts need not mean the same thing as the devaluing of knowledge. It’s always been the case that in certain situations opinions have been more important than facts, and this is a good thing. Let me explain.

Not all facts are true

To call something a fact is, presumably, to make a claim that it is true. This isn’t a problem for many things, although defending such a claim can be harder than you think.

What we think are facts – that is, those things we think are true – can end up being wrong despite our most honest commitment to genuine inquiry.

For example, is red wine good or bad for you? And was there a dinosaur called the brontosaurus or not? The Harvard researcher Samuel Arbesman points out these examples and others of how facts change in his book The Half Life of Facts.

It’s not only that facts can change that is a problem. While we might be happy to consider it a fact that Earth is spherical, we would be wrong to do so because it’s actually a bit pear-shaped. Thinking it a sphere, however, is very different from thinking it to be flat.

Asimov expressed this beautifully in his essay The Relativity of Wrong. For Asimov, the person who thinks Earth is a sphere is wrong, and so is the person who thinks the Earth is flat. But the person who thinks that they are equally wrong is more wrong than both.

Geometrical hair-splitting aside, calling something a fact is therefore not a proclamation of infallibility. It is usually used to represent the best knowledge we have at any given time.

It’s also not the knockout blow we might hope for in an argument. Saying something is a fact by itself does nothing to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you. Unaccompanied by any warrant for belief, it is not a technique of persuasion. Proof by volume and repetition – repeatedly yelling “but it’s a fact!” – simply doesn’t work. Or at least it shouldn’t.

Matters of fact and opinion

Then again, calling something an opinion need not mean an escape to the fairyland of wishful thinking. This too is not a knockout attack in an argument. If we think of an opinion as one person’s view on a subject, then many opinions can be solid.

For example, it’s my opinion that science gives us a powerful narrative to help understand our place in the Universe, at least as much as any religious perspective does. It’s not an empirical fact that science does so, but it works for me.

But we can be much clearer in our meaning if we separate things into matters of fact and matters of opinion.

Matters of fact are confined to empirical claims, such as what the boiling point of a substance is, whether lead is denser than water, or whether the planet is warming.

Matters of opinion are non-empirical claims, and include questions of value and of personal preference such as whether it’s ok to eat animals, and whether vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate. Ethics is an exemplar of a system in which matters of fact cannot by themselves decide courses of action.

Matters of opinion can be informed by matters of fact (for example, finding out that animals can suffer may influence whether I choose to eat them), but ultimately they are not answered by matters of fact (why is it relevant if they can suffer?).

Backing up the facts and opinions

Opinions are not just pale shadows of facts; they are judgements and conclusions. They can be the result of careful and sophisticated deliberation in areas for which empirical investigation is inadequate or ill-suited.

While it’s nice to think of the world so neatly divided into matters of fact and matters of opinion, it’s not always so clinical in its precision. For example, it is a fact that I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate. In other words, it is apparently a matter of fact that I am having a subjective experience.

But we can heal that potential rift by further restricting matters of fact to those things that can be verified by others.

While it’s true that my ice cream preference could be experimentally indicated by observing my behaviour and interviewing me, it cannot be independently verified by others beyond doubt. I could be faking it.

But we can all agree in principle on whether the atmosphere contains more nitrogen or carbon dioxide because we can share the methodology of inquiry that gives us the answer. We can also agree on matters of value if the case for a particular view is rationally persuasive.

Facts and opinions need not be positioned in opposition to each other, as they have complementary functions in our decision-making. In a rational framework, they are equally useful. But that’s just my opinion – it’s not a fact.

Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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And then there were two: welcome back ABC Fact Check

The Conversation

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

Here at The Conversation, we are committed to publishing evidence-based journalism that aims to inform rather than persuade. In a world flooded with opinions based on alternative versions of reality, we think it’s vital that someone does the heavy lifting of sorting truth from fiction.

It’s one reason why we have been commissioning FactCheck articles written by academics since 2013. And it is why we are so pleased to see the return of the ABC Fact Check unit, which was closed in May 2016 and relaunched today as RMIT ABC Fact Check. In a time of slippery weasel words and “alternative facts”, Australia needs fact checking more than ever and it’s not something we think should be left to just one organisation.

The ABC’s return to fact checking, in collaboration with RMIT, will hopefully get the nation talking about facts, evidence and how we can all become more critical media consumers. It also reminds us of the importance of trust in journalism, and the need for media outlets to be transparent about how we work.

The Conversation’s unique FactCheck process, has been praised as a “unique and fascinating model” by the Poynter Institute in the US. It involves commissioning academic experts from across Australia to pen short articles testing statements by politicians and other public figures against the evidence. We always offer right of reply to the person whose factual claims we are checking.

We then ask a second academic expert to blind review the FactCheck draft. That means they read it without knowing the original author’s identity to check that it really is correct and impartial. The blind review is a crucial step and has helped weed out inaccuracies many times in the past. Our FactCheck Editors challenge both author and blind reviewer to support their own arguments with sourcing and high quality evidence.

Above all, we want our FactChecks to be accurate and fair, and help hold our community and political leaders to account. Our FactChecks have been mentioned in parliament, republished widely and cited by advisers helping to craft policy.

In 2017, we are continuing our collaboration with ABC TV’s Q&A program, in which we ask for viewers to send us panellist statements they’d like to see fact-checked using the hashtags #factcheck #qanda. We’re hoping that the new RMIT ABC Fact Check team will be joining us in this work soon. In the meantime we are hoping to publish more FactChecks than ever, following the expansion of our FactCheck editorial team late last year.

It’s our hope that a healthy fact-check culture in Australia will have us all listening to our public figures with a more critical ear, and asking ourselves: “Hang on, is that really true?”

So far The Conversation has published nearly 200 FactCheck articles and you can read them here. You can also request a new FactCheck at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Thanks again for reading The Conversation and for caring about the facts.

The ConversationSunanda Creagh, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Why we need to hear what controversial people say and not silence the debate

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

We who live in Western liberal democracies seem to be in a permanent state of angst about who should be allowed to speak and what they should be allowed to speak about.

This angst is acute at the moment, since low-key voices that once represented extreme views on a range of social issues have recently become louder.

Whether it’s US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denigrating refugees and talking of banning Muslims from entering his country or Australia’s One Nation leader and senator-elect Pauline Hanson rubbishing climate science and talking of banning Muslims from entering her country, this joltingly aggressive posturing has found traction with voters.

It’s not uncommon to hear people applaud this approach because, after all, they “speak their mind”. But what is so good about speaking your mind if it’s a jumbled mess of self-contradiction?

Even if the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Trump and Hanson, as two examples, are generally incoherent, could there be any good points worth exploring buried under the intellectual rubble? Either way, should we be listening?

Let me make the case for why these views should be heard, with attention to specific contexts and principles.

You can speak your mind

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his 1784 essay What is the Enlightenment?, wrote of the need for public reason.

He highlighted the desirability for those in the public arena, and particularity those holding or vying for power, to spell out their thinking so that we can make up our own individual minds based on a rational analysis of the case rather than a simple appeal to emotions.

A necessary condition of this is that people not only speak their minds, but must lay out the reasoned argument that leads them to their position. It is the argument, not just the end position, that demands evaluation, for only through this process can we establish the credibility of the end point.

This requirement for a common language of rationality is, we hope, what leads to the best outcomes in the long run. It protects us from leaders acting on whims or in their own interests.

It’s also a bulwark against a world where only shouted slogans and appeals to fear make up the substance of public discourse. A world William Yeats glimpsed in his poem The Second Coming when he wrote of a time in which:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Divergence of opinion, in which people can simply speak their minds, and hopefully their thinking, is desirable. But this divergence must be followed by a phase of convergence in which alternative views are evaluated and consequently progressed or discarded based on collaboratively established norms of effective reasoning.

Each time we hear a poorly argued view, it should further inoculate us against accepting that view.

If arguments for particular positions with relevance to public life ought be exposed to public scrutiny, they must therefore be listened to and seriously engaged with by at least some people some of the time.

Listen for only so long

We do not, however, have the responsibility to elevate a view beyond the point it can attain through its own persuasiveness. Nor are we obliged to keep giving it our attention after its credibility is found wanting.

Appeals for another hearing without fresh arguments or evidence have no inherent right to be further entertained. Such is the nature of debate in young-earth creationism, anti-vaccination advocates or climate change denial, wherein the same old constantly refuted arguments come up again for another desperate gasp of public air.

It is fine to insist that an argument be evaluated on the proving ground of public reason. But it is an offence against that same principle to demand it stay on the playing field once it has been effectively refuted. A sure test of this unwarranted persistence is the degree to which reasoned argument is replaced by tub-thumping, fear-mongering and appeals to the status quo.

People are free to keep saying what they like but, as I have written before, they should not mistake the right to speak with the right to be heard once their case has already failed to convince.

The debate is therefore not silenced, but reaches closure through established, socially moderated processes of analysis and evaluation. All else is cheer-leading in an attempt to convince others that you are still on the field. But the rest of us are entitled to just go home.

Who decides what becomes public?

This all sounds quite rational, but who are the gatekeepers of the public arena? This is a complex issue. In an ideal world, the entry ticket would be a reasoned case in the public interest, but too many box seats have been pre-sold to vested interests.

So we see media companies such as News Corp pushing arguments against climate science that have long been discredited. And across the board news items and personalities that are sensational rather than significant are placed front and centre.

Media coverage of those speaking publicly is always a decision, and it’s a decision that exposes bias. Not just for who is heard, but also for who is not heard.

Take, for example, the claim that moderate Muslims do not speak out against extremism. The plethora of cases in which this does occur are not given a high profile.

We are not obliged to give someone attention, let alone credibility, simply because they are speaking in public. The Enlightenment principles of public reasoning are conditional, and too often these conditions are not met or simply not understood.

But our acceptance and our rejection of views should always be a reflective practice, measured against long-established norms of rationality.

No one should be silenced, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be listened to.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Denialism

Denialism is a person’s choice to deny certain particular facts.  It is an essentially irrational belief where the person substitutes his or her personal opinion for established knowledge. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of denialism is a failure to recognise the distinction between opinions and facts.

Denialism should not be confused with modern scientific skepticism, which is the challenging of beliefs that are unscientific, irrational or based on insufficient evidence.  Instead of denying facts, modern skeptics test claims by analysing whether they are supported by adequate empirical evidence. Denialism is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.

The philosophical skepticism of the Academic Skeptics and Pyrrhonists in Classical Greece (which was quite different to modern skepticism) consisted of doubting whether there can be any knowledge or facts at all, rather than denying particular facts.

Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature. For example, the term climate change denialist is applied to people who argue against the scientific consensus that the global warming of planet Earth is a real and occurring event primarily caused by human activity. 

The term evolution denialist or ‘creationist’ is applied to people who argue against the fact that life on Earth has evolved from earlier forms, instead of having been created by a supernatural being in its current form.

Other instances include Holocaust denialism, AIDS denialism, vaccination denialism, and Flat-Earthism. The various forms of denialism present the common feature of the person rejecting overwhelming evidence, often with attempts to deny the existence of a scientific consensus or alternatively to allege a conspiracy theory to fake or conceal the evidence. Denialism is commonly one of the foundations of quackery and other varieties of woo.

The motivations and causes of denialism include irrationality, religion and self-interest (political, economic or financial), beliefs in conspiracy theories or even defence mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.

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Science deniers reject authority and facts

Here is an excellent article by philosopher  Dr. Patrick Stokes in The Age, 18 December 2015. It begins:

“Many people who choose to ignore accepted scientific conclusions are making emotional rather than rational decisions.”

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/people-pick-and-choose-over-scientific-discoveries-at-their-peril-20151216-glpj3z.html#ixzz3uctzHc6a

I have written an essay on a related topic.

 

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Brian Schmidt on amateur climate science ‘experts’

Brian Paul Schmidt AC, FRS, FAA (born February 24, 1967) is a Distinguished Professor, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and astrophysicist at The Australian National University‘s Mount Stromlo Observatory and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics; and is known for his research in using supernovae as cosmological probes. He currently holds an Australia Research Council Federation Fellowship and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2012. Schmidt shared both the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, making him the only Montana-born Nobel laureate. In June 2015, his appointment as the next Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, commencing in January 2016, was announced.

‘As a Nobel Prize winner, I travel the world meeting all kinds of people. Most of the policy, business and political leaders I meet immediately apologise for their lack of knowledge of science. Except when it comes to climate science. Whenever this subject comes up, it never ceases to amaze me how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert.

Facts are then bandied to fit an argument for or against climate change, and on all sides, misconceptions abound. The confusion is not surprising – climate science is a very broad and complicated subject with experts working on different aspects of it worldwide. No single person knows everything about climate change. And for the average punter, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest research and what it means.

More surprising is the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject.’

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Opinions and free speech

Someone once said that defending an opinion by citing the right to free speech is sort of the ultimate concession  – you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express it.

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Why we need to listen to the real experts in science

The Conversation

By Michael Clarke, La Trobe University and Susan Lawler, La Trobe University

If we want to use scientific thinking to solve problems, we need people to appreciate evidence and heed expert advice.

But the Australian suspicion of authority extends to experts, and this public cynicism can be manipulated to shift the tone and direction of debates. We have seen this happen in arguments about climate change.

This goes beyond the tall poppy syndrome. Disregard for experts who have spent years studying critical issues is a dangerous default position. The ability of our society to make decisions in the public interest is handicapped when evidence and thoughtfully presented arguments are ignored.

Anyone can claim to be an expert these days. Flickr/Alan Cleaver , CC BY

Anyone can claim to be an expert these days. Flickr/Alan Cleaver , CC BY

So why is science not used more effectively to address critical questions? We think there are several contributing factors including the rise of Google experts and the limited skills set of scientists themselves. We think we need non-scientists to help us communicate with and serve the public better.

At a public meeting recently, when a well-informed and feisty elderly participant asked a question that referred to some research, a senior public servant replied: “Oh, everyone has a scientific study to justify their position, there is no end to the studies you could cite, I am sure, to support your point of view.”

This is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid. In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.

Such a viewpoint is dangerous from our point of view.

When scientists disagree with one another, as they must to ensure progress in their field, it is easy to argue that it is not possible to distinguish between conflicting hypotheses. But scientists always agree that critical thinking done well eventually leads to a better understanding and superior solutions. All opinions are not equal.

If you are flying in an airplane at 30,000 feet, you will not be content with just any scientific study about whether the wing will stay on the plane. Most people will want to put their trust in the calculations of an expert aeronautical engineer who understands the physics of stresses on the wing.

So why do we not want to trust experts in bushfire management, or climate change? Because most people are happier with experts whose conclusions fit their own ideas.

This encourages people to express their opinions, and the internet allows those opinions to get a wide viewing. This makes for interesting times, but not always effective solutions.

Google experts

The internet is filled with information and ideas. Everyone can quickly find “answers”, and this means that everyone is an “expert”.

But using Google to find the answer to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts do have skills and one of those is the ability to use high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks, and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field. This is why an expert’s answers are going to be more accurate and more nuanced than a novice.

For example, people who use Dr Google to diagnose their symptoms before visiting an actual doctor, sometimes ask to be tested for diseases they do not have, or waste time seeking a second opinion because they are convinced that their “research” has led them to a correct diagnosis. If it were really that easy, would doctors have to spend all those years in medical school?

There is another problem called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that “people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact”.

In other words, people who think all answers can be found on Google are likely to be unaware of the effort involved in solving complex problems, or why years of specialist training might help.

This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Easy access to huge volumes of confusing information sits very comfortably in a post-modern world. Unfortunately, the outcome is that most people are reluctant to do the intellectual hard work of sifting through competing hypotheses. So how are we to engage in robust scientific debates in such a public arena?

Science is not enough

It has been said many times that scientists need to communicate their research more broadly. The challenges are well known – peer reviewed scientific publications are necessary for our careers and time spent engaging with the public is time away from the field, our computers and laboratory benches.

Nevertheless, if we hope to influence government policy we cannot assume that the implications of our research will be understood by those who most need to know what we are doing.

Reaching out to busy bureaucrats and politicians is not something that comes naturally to scientists. To turn science into policy we need a diverse team of people with different but complementary skills who share a commitment to the task.

Skills that are not commonly found in scientists may be found in political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, public relations companies, the arts community and the media.

Forming relationships with people who can translate our findings into something that cannot be ignored may be critical to success.

Consider what we are up against, lobby groups with deep pockets have come up with brilliant assaults on the thoughtful management of our environment.

“Cutting Green Tape” or “No fuels, no fire” – these clever bits of spin threaten decades of rigorous research and policy development. This is not a failure of science, but a triumph of imagination. We have been dramatically out-manoeuvred, shown to be amateurs, in the world of presenting competing ideas.

At a recent fire forum we learned that current policy is: “Based on science, but driven by values.” This means that despite the best evidence, the values of our current society will decide when to act. This introduces another definition of truth seeking, based on who made the best argument in a political or legal process.

Science is meant to be done dispassionately and objectively, so scientists are not well equipped to participate in debates about values. This is the realm of ethicists, philosophers, artists and theologians.

But if we are passionate about applying the lessons learned from our research, we will need marketers, lobbyists, communication experts, accountants and economists. A multi-disciplinary team is required to convince society to change.

Perhaps the people with these complementary skills will be able to help break down the anti-intellectualism we face, for the benefit of all.


This is based on an address delivered by Professor Michael Clarke at the 2nd Biodiversity Forum held at the Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne in 2014.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Brian Cox on opinions

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No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Firstly, what’s an opinion?

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.[1]

Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.

Read more from Patrick Stokes: The ethics of bravery

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Reblogger’s note: 

[1] This is a fallacy known as false balance.

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