Aug 11th 2016

Opinions Are Overrated

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology


The disparate problems facing us today can seem overwhelming in their diversity and magnitude. Our political foundations seem to be crumbling. Polarization has reached extremes on both right and left, yielding a rift in society perhaps not seen since the Civil War. For many, the rise of Donald Trump is simply inexplicable, an example of a world gone mad. Those who hate Hillary Clinton cannot comprehend how she could reach the Oval Office.

I submit that that most of the ills we suffer, and much of the political mayhem we are witnessing, all spring from a common source: we no longer share a unified understanding of reality. Society has diverged from an evidence-based worldview accepted broadly by most to a community rent asunder by the ascendance of opinion alone as the new gold standard of proof.

Denying the reality of climate change and its cause, questioning the validity of evolution, promoting an anti-vaccine agenda and fighting blindly against every GMO are all products of the same culture in which objective reality is a quaint notion from the past. Scientific illiteracy has reached that catastrophic point where science transmutes from a search for objective truth to just another opinion, carrying no more weight than the blathering of a talking head with an opposing view. In this brave new world, the collective opinions of thousands of professional meteorologists have been equated to nothing more valid than the uneducated opinion of a radio host. Such false equivalency is a sure sign we are in deep trouble. Reproducible evidence is given the same weight as unsubstantiated opinion, and when that happens there is no means of arbitrating between conflicting claims. The common language of a shared reality has gone the way of Latin.

We cannot solve disputes because we can no longer agree even on what is the issue. If we all agree the sky is blue, we have a common basis for discussing why it is blue, or if its color has significance, or if god made it so. But if I say the sky is blue and you counter that the color is green, we have lost the ability to discuss the significance of its hue because your opinion about green has the same weight as the evidence I provide that we all see blue. There is no common ground, and therefore no ability ever to have a dialogue about the consequences of a blue sky. When opinion is confused with fact, when belief alone becomes sufficient proof, anything goes.

That is why those who oppose climate change become authorities in meteorology and climatology; they can hold opinions that mean as much as the expertise of a scientist who has devoted her life to the subjects. In the absence of a shared reality, deniers magically know more than thousands of qualified scientists from nearly 200 countries. Logic and reason have no currency. Think about this: many doubters cite the Earth’s past cycles of glaciation and warming to discount what we are seeing today as nothing but natural variation. How do the skeptics know of that climate history? From the very scientists whose conclusions they now doubt! As if the scientists themselves are unaware of their own conclusions about the earth’s past, or if they are aware, did not take that history into account. Deniers preferentially believe one set of facts from those scientists but dismiss other facts as liberal nonsense. This is what happens when we no longer share the same sense of objective truth. We are just a few votes shy of descending into another Dark Age in which ignorance and faith triumph completely over reason and fact.

But, but, but, opinions are not facts, no matter how much one might claim otherwise. The sum of two plus two equals four; that is not an opinion open for discussion or debate. You can claim that the sum of those numbers equals five, but you would be wrong. Period. You are free to make the claim, to create a church based on that belief, to become a radio host dedicated to proving your point, to organize a new political party to support candidates who believe your brand of addition, but you are still wrong. You can hate those liberal “crooked 4s” and warn they will burn in hell for eternity. But you are factually incorrect; your claim about addition is demonstrably false. There are not two sides to the debate; your opinion does not deserve equal time. There is no room for arbitration: the sum does not equal 4.5 because we feel compelled to split the difference.

Objective truth does not yield to the whim of opinion, but our society has tragically forsaken that fundamental foundation. Facts matter. Experience matters. Education matters. Reality matters. Would you have your plumber perform brain surgery on your wife? Or have an accomplished Shakespearean actor with no flight training pilot the Boeing 747 you are taking across the Pacific? How about hiring a shark biologist to design and build your house? These suggestions are clearly absurd, but why? Because reality is not an abstract concept to be discarded without consequence.

Vaccines offer the perfect example of how conflating opinion for fact is deadly, and not something abstract or distant like climate change may seem to many. Every year vaccines save approximately 3 million lives among children younger than five years old every year by preventing diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and measles; if adults are included, vaccines save up to 6 million lives annually. In opposing vaccinations your “opinion” would lead to the death of an additional 3 million children every year. The Third Edition of the State of the World’s Vaccines and Immunization reports that, “Between 2000 and 2007, the number of children dying from measles dropped by 74 percent worldwide, from an estimated 750,000 to an estimated 197,000 children. In addition, immunization prevents sickness as well as lifelong disability, including measles-related deafness, blindness, and mental disability.”

The study also states that, “In 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries and paralyzing an estimated 350,000 children every year (close to 1000 cases a day). By the end of 2007, polio had been eradicated in three of WHO’s six regions — the Region of the Americas, the European Region, and the Western Pacific Region. Following implementation of the rubella elimination strategy in the Americas, the number of reported cases of rubella declined by 98 percent between 1998 and 2006. By 2000, 135 countries had eliminated neonatal tetanus and by 2004, annual deaths from neonatal tetanus had fallen to an estimated 128 000, down from 790,000 deaths in 1988.”

If you oppose vaccinations, try to justify that position with the reality that in the absence of vaccinations polio would paralyze 10,000 children every year; German measles would cause birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 kids, and diphtheria would be a common cause of death in school children. Anytime you have an urge to oppose vaccination, think of your kid dying of diphtheria. If you oppose vaccinations, your “opinion” could be responsible for 10,000 kids each year becoming paralyzed.

So why do people oppose vaccines? Largely from just one paper published in 1998 in the medical journal Lancet, subsequently withdrawn for suspicions of scientific fraud, and fully discredited by later study. Repeat after me: there is no evidence, none, zero, absolutely nothing, to link vaccinations with autism. It is a myth, a fallacy, factually incorrect. Two plus two does not equal five, no matter your claim otherwise. Yet tens of thousands of parents risk their children’s health by withholding critical vaccinations. Many parents still to this day insist that vaccines cause autism, even in the complete absence of any evidence to support the claim with the withdrawal of the original paper. You might as well claim that vaccines cause baldness. No, no, I’ve got the perfect claim: vaccines are ineffective in preventing disease but prove there is no global warming! In that we combine belief in something for which there is no evidence and disbelief in another other for which there is indisputable proof. Perfect.

And now we come to Donald Trump. He is the political equivalent of the anti-vaccine movement. His candidacy makes no sense in a rational world. He is the ultimate consequence of our conflating evidence and opinion. With Donald Trump, we the voters have become as removed from a rational grasp of objective truth as villagers stoning medical workers to death in Africa: eight health care workers combating the Ebola epidemic were killed by an angry mob who believed the doctors and nurses were infecting people with the virus. The population most in need of help killed the only people who could provide assistance. We have become that mob, our deeply-held beliefs divorced from the real world. Sitting in the comfort of our homes we can easily see these horrible killings as ridiculous, obviously counterproductive to the killers, and dangerous to people globally with an increased risk of a broader epidemic. After all, the terrible episode is based entirely in the transparently false idea that doctors were spreading the disease, a notion borne of ignorance of basic biology. While the killings in Africa are easy to condemn, and rightfully so, we in the West are guilty of a deep scientific illiteracy of a magnitude similar to what we saw in Africa, with equally lethal results. It is transparently false that Donald Trump could be a viable president, so how are those supporting him any different in their worldview than those frightened villagers who acted on the basis of pure ignorance?

We know that two plus two equals four, that the sky is blue, that vaccines are safe and effective, and that Donald Trump is not remotely qualified for the presidency. But in a society in which facts do not carry any more weight than myth, we get a bigoted megalomaniac with multiple failed marriages as the conservative family value candidate. Just as we have people opposing vaccines for reasons divorced from truth, or villagers killing health workers sent to help them in a paroxysm of hateful misunderstanding, we have voters willing to elect as the leader of the free world a failed businessman who mocks the disabled. This is only possible because we no longer share a common understanding of reality. Science, reason and evidence are no longer commonly accepted as the path to elucidate an objective truth because we no longer believe there is such thing. Our truth is whatever we believe it to be, evidence be damned. Hence Donald Trump.

The end of our Republic might be nigh not because of ISIS or a nuclear attack, but because the voting public can no longer distinguish between opinion and fact such that simply stating the sky is green or that Trump is a viable candidate makes it so.

Climate change is real and caused by humankind; evolution explains the diversity of life; and Trump is an existential threat to the United States. There is no debate here: only ignorance of an objective truth.



Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a marine biologist, consultant and internationally recognized authority in ethics, conservation and development. He is the author of five books including Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction (July 2011), and A New Moral Code (2010). Dr. Schweitzer has spoken at numerous international conferences in Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.Dr. Schweitzer's work is based on his desire to introduce a stronger set of ethics into American efforts to improve the human condition worldwide. He has been instrumental in designing programs that demonstrate how third world development and protecting our resources are compatible goals. His vision is to inspire a framework that ensures that humans can grow and prosper indefinitely in a healthy environment.Formerly, Dr. Schweitzer served as an Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Clinton. Prior to that, Dr. Schweitzer served as the Chief Environmental Officer at the State Department's Agency for International Development. In that role, he founded the multi-agency International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program, a U.S. Government that promoted conservation through rational economic use of natural resources.Dr. Schweitzer began his scientific career in the field of marine biology. He earned his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He expanded his research at the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. While at U.C. Irvine he was awarded the Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.Dr. Schweitzer is a pilot and he founded and edited the Malibu Mirage, an aviation magazine dedicated to pilots flying these single-engine airplanes. He and his wife Sally are avid SCUBA divers and they travel widely to see new wildlife, never far from their roots as marine scientists..To learn more about Dr Schweitzer, visit his website at http://www.JeffSchweitzer.com.


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