The democratisation of opinion

With the rise of the internet and social media almost anyone can express their opinion to an audience in the thousands, even hundreds of thousands, no longer just to a circle of people who are physically present to hear the opinion. While that provides the democratisation of opinion, it also has a more sinister side. It has led to a widespread view that in this new democratic world all opinions are equally valid. 

There is no doubt that all opinions are valid but only as personal opinions. It does not make an opinion true (that is, matching the evidence) nor does it mean that the opinion has any validity beyond its expression as a personal point of view. And yet in this democratisation of opinion, we see people maintaining that not only do they have a right to their opinion but they have a right for their opinion to be considered valid in all circumstances, even when a range of evidence refutes it. It is much like saying my opinion that 2 + 2 = 3 is as valid as the alternative that 2 + 2 = 4. No-one would argue that proposition would they? — these days the answer to that question is not so clear.

What is the opposite of opinion? — probably truth or facts. Without getting into a philosophical argument about what is ‘truth’, it is possible to employ scientific method to arrive at conclusions that are true, or most likely true. That is because scientific method is based on observations and drawing conclusions that explain the observations and that has been done for hundreds of years. It is possible to say that science still forms opinions, or what are called theories or hypotheses, based on those observations but science will change its theories when observed facts do not match the current theory.

For a long time people thought that the sun went around the earth — and why not? After all, even though we are spinning at 1670km/h (at the equator), travelling around the sun at 107,000km/h and spiralling with the sun around the Milky Way at 792,000km/h, we feel nothing but we do see the sun rise in the east every day and set in the west. Based on that latter observation alone, it is logical to assume that it is the sun that is moving not the earth. But astronomers watching the stars and planets saw something which that model could not explain: at certain times the other planets appeared to go backwards in the heavens. Eventually that, and other observations, made it clear that it was the earth moving about the sun that explained what the astronomers were observing. And so we have advanced our knowledge using that model. It is not as though science plucks its theories out of the air. They explain what has already been observed until a new observation suggests it is time for a new explanation.

And it is not just scientists who use this method. There are many anecdotal stories of farmers knowing more than scientists in particular situations and proving scientists wrong. But that is not based on some random opinion of the farmers but their own observations over many years of local weather, soil, and crop and livestock results in varying situations. Their opinion is often proved right because their set of observations is over a much longer period than those of experts who arrive for a field trip that may last no longer than a few weeks. Even though the experts are trained in their discipline they do not have the range of observations that the farmers have that are relevant to the local circumstances. The farmers’ observations may not be recorded but retained in memory, or even family tradition for observations over longer periods, but their opinions are based on long term observations. Scientists are acknowledging that history of observation and drawing it into the scientific process, just as they are now recognising Aboriginal knowledge in the management of fire, flora and fauna is based on thousands of years of observation, even if that knowledge is expressed in a different way. These days the scientists are trained so that they can apply their knowledge over a range of circumstances, whereas the farmers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have more detailed knowledge and opinions based on decades or millennia of observation but it has most relevance only to their local conditions.

Opinions have some commonality with the scientific use of observation. Almost all opinions are based on some level of observation but the real difference between the quality of opinions is probably the extent of observations drawn upon to form the opinion. In the recent Brexit campaign in the UK, some experts were warning of the economic consequences of the UK leaving the European Union but Michael Gove, campaigning for the ‘leave’ side, suggested that people were tired of experts and, by implication, would ignore such advice. The observation that led many people to that conclusion concerned the rules coming from the EU technocrats in Brussels which many Britains saw as undermining their traditions and control of their own country. Based on that observation alone, they could validly form an opinion that questioned the experts but it should only have been the experts issuing those rules. Instead, one observation can become a wider dismissal of expert opinion.

Thus we have the questioning of the science underpinning anthropogenic climate change or even questioning climate change itself. People are perfectly entitled to have an opinion rejecting climate change but that does not make their opinion true. For their opinion to be true it would also have to be based on a set of factual observations and some of the observations used by the deniers have been shown to be false or, at best, built on a foundation of quick-sand. When by far the majority of observations support the occurrence of climate change and the probability of it being ‘man-made’ is 90% or more, then some very strong alternative observations would be required to change the current scientific consensus. The deniers have not presented such observations but still insist their opinions are not only valid but true.

I worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for many years and so I often came across people who held negative stereotypes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I would be asked why should they have houses when they only break them down for firewood. I knew there had been such instances, although rare, so I would not deny their opinion based on that observation but answer with a broader and more positive range of observations: all of the people who did not burn their houses but lived normal lives in them; the range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses; or even that many problems in housing arose not from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander misuse of the dwelling but from shoddy workmanship by the original construction contractors. I don’t know how many opinions I managed to change but at least I had presented a new range of observations for them to consider.

Politicians hoping to run the country shouldn’t operate from a limited range of observations but many do. They play up to their audience or constituency by presenting views based on a limited range of observations and ignoring those observations that run counter to that opinion — just as the church rejected Copernicus’s observations that the earth went around the sun. The Trumps and Hansons of the world are masters of this approach. While it may have some electoral appeal, it is not a basis on which to run a country. A government, almost by definition, must take account of a wide range of opinions (and the observations on which they are based) and either determine which are true or balance the conflicting views to come to a policy decision in the best interest of the country.

Governments often express an intention to follow ‘evidence-based’ policy, but we also have lobbying which is an attempt to convince policy makers to pay more heed to one set of opinions or observations rather than another. The big and unanswered question is whether members of government are well-placed to assess the varying observations supporting different opinions or whether they are also personally influenced by a limited range of observations. It is perhaps a belief that the latter is true that leads to public opinion that politicians are ’out of touch’ or, in other words, are not considering a broad range of observations but are overly influenced by lobbyists, a small number of interest groups, or personal opinions — each of which is focused on a limited range of observations.

Yes, we all have personal opinions that are valid as personal opinions no matter how few the number of observations on which they are based. If, however, I am willing to listen to, consider and perhaps accept a wider range of observations, then we can have a rational discussion, debate the observations (evidence) and perhaps reach a conclusion that changes my opinion or that of my interlocutor. Or we may mutually agree a different opinion that is new for both of us. If that was the way of the world, then opinions would be in their rightful place and open to change based on a wider range of observations.

Of course, there are some whose opinion will not change, who see all other observations through the prism of their own opinion or believe that the observations supporting their opinion are ‘true’ and therefore all other observations must be ‘false’. That has always been the case but with this so-called democratisation of opinion many more people now feel that their opinion must be valued as it stands. When all opinions are considered valued and valid, people defend them with vehemence as we see on blog sites and social media and do not open their minds to a broader range of observations. Instead of taking the new observations as something to be considered, they take them as a personal attack on their ‘valued’ opinion and attack in return. If this is democratic, it is a negative form of democracy — to use an old cliché it is ‘playing the man, not the ball’ and that is not truly democratic for it fails to recognise the democratic rights of your fellow citizen. Yes, all opinions are valid but only if our minds are open to consider a broader range of possibilities that may change our opinion.

And yes, this entire piece is my opinion. So now over to you for your opinion and revelation of broader observations for my consideration.

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8/08/2016So @Little Devil - what's your opinion?


8/08/2016Little Devil Your father's cynicism regarding opinions is, in my view, a healthy approach to opinions.


8/08/2016thanks Dan. If you find time later, I would look forward to a more detailed comment as I appreciate the comments you have made previously here on TPS.
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?