Thursday, January 31, 2008

I Have a Right to My Opinion

I confess I rather like this, from an interview with Theodore Dalrymple:

BC: Hasn't the line between "having a right to an opinion" and "having a valid opinion" become completely blurred in recent years?

Theodore Dalrymple: Many young people now end a discussion with the supposedly definitive and unanswerable statement that such is their opinion, and their opinion is just as valid as anyone else's. The fact is that our opinion on an infinitely large number of questions is not worth having, because everyone is infinitely ignorant. My opinion of the parasitic diseases of polar bears is not worth having for the simple reason that I know nothing about them, though I have a right to an opinion in the sense that I should not receive a knock on the door from the secret police if I express such a worthless opinion.

The right to an opinion is often confused (no doubt for reasons of misplaced democratic sentiment) for the validity of an opinion, just as the validity of an argument is often mistaken for the truth of a conclusion.

Every exam question I have ever given has been of the essay variety. (I will have to change that this quarter, in order to administer standardized questions for assessment purposes in my basic economics principles class.) A common objection that I see on student evaluations to my style of teaching is that “he only wants you to agree with him,” “my opinions were punished because they were different,” etc. Students who draw this conclusion are doing so on the basis (presumably unbeknownst to them) of a very limited information set. They know only two things – that they got a poor score, and that their opinion was different from mine.

A critical piece of information that they do not have is how I graded every other student’s answer. They don’t know whether other students also expressed a contrary view, but supported it soundly with logic and evidence. They don’t know whether, if other students did these things, they got good scores, or bad ones just because they were contrary views. It turns out, I hope, that students who are able to support a different opinion are not penalized because of the difference part. Indeed, the word "opinion" is probably misplaced here, because we are not talking about matters of taste, as for example an opinion about whether Thai food is good, or a certain actor is good at his craft. Theses are matters of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. We are instead talking of arguments, which require some support in reasoning and evidence.

Ultimately it is the assumption that any argument must be as good as any other just because a sovereign individual holds it that Mr. Dalrymple is objecting to. And of course I agree.


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