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.


To follow Jeff Schweizer on Twitter, please click here.

For Jeff Schweitzer web site, please click here.

Below link to Amazon for Jeff Schweitzer's latest book.


TO FOLLOW WHAT'S NEW ON FACTS & ARTS, PLEASE CLICK HERE!




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."