In the United States, we’re free to believe whatever we want. We’re free to believe the earth is round or flat, free to support pineapple on pizza and free to think Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg is a lizard man. Though freedom of thought can lead to absurd ideas and borderline problematic legislation, it’s a necessary aspect of democracy, and without it our country would certainly not be the land of liberty.
However, just because we have a right to an opinion doesn’t mean every opinion we have is right, much less valid. The truth is, there is such a thing as a wrong opinion and we need to move away from the notion that every opinion is worthy of consideration.
The type of opinions I’m referring to aren’t personal preferences like favorite ice cream flavors or colors; it doesn’t make sense to debate someone for liking green instead of yellow. Yet I’m more than welcome to dispute someone who believes the earth is flat. I can do this because physics makes such a claim difficult, if not impossible, to defend.
What makes my opinion more valid has to do with my approach to it. Opinions are subjective by nature, they're rooted in our experiences and beliefs. For that matter, no opinion can be purely objective, but some can be more objective than others. That is, opinions supported with facts or based in reality are intrinsically more valuable.
By contrast, opinions founded solely on intuition and personal convictions are less trustworthy. This should make sense. You likely don’t pack an umbrella simply because you feel it will rain, but because the forecast said it will. You trust meteorology over your own gut-feelings because the former is consistently more accurate than the latter.
Opinions that come from a place of authority should be prioritized. These are expert opinions. Anyone would be remiss to trust me, a college student, to provide a credible medical diagnosis. Likewise, it would be illogical to assume someone with no knowledge of environmental science is on par with a climatologist.
When we level the playing field for all beliefs, we diminish the voices that should carry more weight in the conversation. We saw this happen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Against the recommendations of health officials, many Americans refused to wear masks and receive vaccinations. Reasons for doing so ranged far and wide, but none changed the fact that hospitalizations among the vaccinated remained much lower.
Not only does accepting all beliefs undermine expertise, but it also hinders constructive discussion and critical thinking. Defending an argument with “I'm entitled to my opinion” is akin to putting our hands over our ears and saying “la la la.” It’s a cop out — a way to shield our beliefs from criticism. By this statement, we’re essentially saying any attempt to argue further is a sign of intolerance of our viewpoints.
Instead of relying on this line of reasoning to protect our opinions, we should aim to build defensible cases. Philosophy professor Patrick Stokes said it best, “you’re only entitled to what you can argue for.” Sure, there may be two sides to every story, but if only one is backed by facts and evidence, then that is the one that deserves our time and attention.
While logic and proof are characteristic of strong arguments, they're not always enough to change someone else’s mind. Often, the exact opposite effect occurs and beliefs are fortified in the face of opposing evidence. Rather than forcing change upon someone else, psychology suggests it may be better to inspire others to want it for themselves.
Motivational interviewing is a technique that utilizes non-confrontational dialogue to encourage people to shift mindsets. This works by asking open-ended questions that allow others to reflect on their thoughts as well as their motivations to change. When we do this, people are less likely to hold extreme views and be open to other alternatives, according to one study from SAGE Journal.
It’s high time we abandoned the notion that all opinions deserve equal treatment. It’s not only illogical to assume this, but it also doesn’t lead to constructive discourse. What does, is valuing an opinion by the evidence it has to show for it, not just someone’s right to have one. But hey — that’s just my opinion.