(In honor of the release of Richard Dawkin’s new book, The Greatest Show On Earth)
What is the difference between fact and opinion? Verifiable Truth and Personal Belief?
People engaged in this discussion often allow themselves to get off track because they intentionally misrepresent certain qualifiers that in normal conversation are understood, but in a heated debate suddenly become the focal points of pointless semantic arguments. Often, the basic meaning of a word gets so bogged down within rhetoric that it almost loses meaning.
For instance: “Scientists.” This word gets used a lot in a discussion of evolution, the Big Bang Theory, geology and all the other scientific topics. Thanks to the politicizing of information, the simple title ‘Scientists’ has become a catchall word that either means “Almighty Fountain of Knowledge” or “Evil Socialist Evil Scary Evil Evil Devil (anti-American) Creature.” Obviously, both are hysterical phrases, but whereas the former is a mistake of putting too much faith in simple humans, the latter view is all about projecting. If a person of science comes out and says something that does not jive with your personal views, instead of it being a prompt for you to look into it more and perhaps revise your beliefs, it becomes the obvious misinformation of a ‘liberal’ (when did science become liberalism?) God-hater whose hidden agenda is the undermining of decent morals and ethics.
Blame politicians, blame the media, blame your local pastor, but ‘Scientist’ has become a loaded word. And part of that reason is because it has broad meaning and manages to cloud the true definition of an individual. When someone says, “Scientists have discovered a new species of mosquito,” substitute out the word ‘Scientists’ with ‘Biologists’. Remember what a biologist is: An intelligent, educated person who has spent years training and studying to be better at the work they do, biology. At no point in their education did they ever get pulled aside for a seminar entitled: “How to Mislead the American Public in Order to Kill God.” Believe me, if they had offered that seminar, I would have gone.
We in America have grown so suspicious of experts. We distrust scientists. We distrust our doctors. We distrust any politician who doesn’t use the word ‘folks’. Ironically, at the same time, we’ve become more trusting of people with no qualifications. Glenn Beck? Jon Stewart? One of those guys I love, the other I hate (Guess who). But I can tell you one thing, neither one of them should be our source for facts, they are both entertainers playing to a base who will use information out of context for the reaction they want (fear/anger or laughter). The difference being, one admits he is just a comedian who repeatedly states that he is a fake newsman and shouldn’t be the source of anyone’s news, and the other is retarded.
It’s funny how quick we are to dismiss ‘experts’ when they say something we don’t agree with, but as soon as someone questions our beliefs we immediately fall back on the credentials of the guy who wrote the book we’re getting all of our information from. “He got a doctorate from Harvard.” “She worked in healthcare.” “He hosted a show where people ate goat penis.” (You’d be surprised how many people turn to Joe Rogan for their facts.)
Part of the reason we distrust experts is because so many ‘experts’ like to give their opinions on areas outside of their expertise. How many news shows do you see ‘pundits’ pontificating on some topic that has little to do with their expertise? For that matter, how many times do we see pundits who are completely uneducated simpletons being asked their opinions on subjects way above their paygrade (Joe The Plumber? Really?).
But true experts, people with experience, people who have trained to do their job and studied to more fully know their speciality, these are the types of people we should be listening to. That doesn’t mean we should automatically adopt the opinion of the most respected person in any field, but we should be more willing to listen to what they have to say. Any good scientist takes heed of the theories that came before them, and we are all scientists after all. You’re a scientist every time you learn from past experience, everytime you solve a puzzle or read a book to better understand something.
You may call yourself a person of faith, but I’m betting you’re not about to stick your hand on a bright red oven grate. The scientific process taught you that bit of common sense, not a holy revelation.
So then, what can we know to be fact, and what is just opinion. Well, let’s lay out some facts that we know to be true, things no one reasonable disputes.
1. The earth is round. (We all in agreement? Good, I’ll move on.)
2. Objects fall to earth. This is caused by Gravity. (Funny, I could have sworn they called it the “Theory of Gravity”)
3. The earth rotates around the sun.
4. Water is made by 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom.
I could certainly continue.
5. If we have one thing that is called a ‘cat’ and we add a second thing that is called a ‘cat’, we have 2 things that are called ‘cat’. (See what I did there, I continued.)
Of these things, how many do we know to be facts because of the scientific method, and which came to us through revelation?
These were just some of the basic facts that aren’t in dispute by anyone sane or older than 3. Other facts are just as true even if larger numbers of people dispute them. For instance, a considerable number of people think that we never landed on the moon, but the vast majority accept the Apollo 11 moon landing as a historical fact. This is an example of a fact that is actually easier to prove than, say, the molecular make-up of water, yet greater numbers of people accept the latter more readily. Why?
Experts. Why dispute the 2 hydrogen and 1 oxygen molecules in water when the people who would know such information tell us it is a fact? Ironically, those people are scientists. Chemists to be more specific. We trust the experts quite willingly up to a point. And that point is Belief. We have to have a standard by which we distinguish fact from opinion when we ourselves do not have the means of verifying it. While any good logician knows that it is a fallacy to claim something is true based on the opinion of an expert (Appeal to Authority), accepting the facts as proven by an expert is reasonable. Certainly more reasonable than saying, “My pastor says differently.”
Obviously I can’t go into all that is knowable and all that is not knowable in this post (it’s already too long as is), but I want to come to a major point. Or a question really.
If you are one of those people who disbelieves ‘scientists’ when it comes to things like evolution (law) and Natural Selection (theory), why?
I can only see 3 possible reasons.
1. You believe biologists have largely joined in a conspiracy of misinformation for some unspecified agenda. This conspiracy happens to encompass scientists in other specialties, too, as cosmologists, geologists and physicists support the theory of evolution with their own areas of expertise. (If you want, you can augment this one by saying you believe Satan is intentionally deluding these scientists; thus, they aren’t bad people, just misled.)
2. You refuse to take any experts word on anything until you can prove it yourself. You only take aspirin for headaches because you did a personal study in which you tested the headache reducing capabilities of aspirin against Fig Newtons, beef jerky and yellow chalk. No doctors or lawyers or teachers or artists for you. If you want to know something, you research it. Of course, you can’t use books, because those are written by experts. You go back to the basics. Does 1 + 1 really equal 2? I say, “Bullshit Snapple!”
3. You have a religious belief that centers on God (or some higher being) having created everything, and if unassisted nature is capable of doing what you believe only God could do, your entire belief system will crumble and you will be adrift in the desert. You may even have to accept that morality doesn’t need a higher being because the human race had a better chance of surviving if it learned how to co-exist peacefully and conscientiously.
Some may say God is equivalent to Gravity, a force that cannot be seen and thus must be accepted on ‘faith’. Except, Gravity is consistent. You never jump off of a building and float away. The law of Gravity always does what it’s suppose to do and has yet to fail. God, on the other hand, has no consistency. When two opposing football teams pray for his help to win, one gets it, the other doesn’t. Sometimes when a cancer patient is prayed for, they recover. Most times, not so much. Even in those times when cancer goes into remission, there seems to be other facts that should be taken in to account, like, for instance, those expert doctors who did their job and used chemotherapy, itself the result of expert scientists.
Which is all to say that belief in God is an opinion. I don’t begrudge you it. We all have beliefs. What makes them a belief is that they are not verifiable. It’s really no different than Santa Claus. People get offended when their religious belief is compared to Santa Claus, but can anyone explain how it is different? It’s not even meant to be an offensive statement. No sane adult believes in Santa Claus, yet you nor I nor anyone else can ever disprove he exists.
And this, ultimately is the distinction between fact and opinion. A fact can be proven true, and it provides a means by which it can be proven false. What is a fact if not a statement about reality that consistently stands up to testing? Think back to the facts I listed before. The earth is round, for instance. Just standing in place, there is no way to prove or even imagine that the ground you are standing on is a globe. But it is a fact and it can be verified both in rather simple ways (studying the horizon) and more complex ways (sending satellites into orbit). You have no way of knowing that the earth is round except that you willingly stand on the shoulders of the scientists and explorers before you who confirmed and continue to confirm this fact. Evolution is no different.
If, on the other hand, something cannot be proven one way or the other, it remains an opinion.
This is why, “Radiohead is the greatest band in the world” is just an opinion (a mighty logical opinion) and so is any statement about God (including any statements relating to his existence or non-existence).
With a distinction between fact and opinion at hand, I await reasoned debate.