The greatest deception men suffer is their own opinions.
—Leonardo da Vinci
Few would disagree that the political situation in the world during the last year has been one of the most stressful in recent times. It has led all of us to hear more opinions than we can count—or than we would care to. Opinions abound, about everything from taxes to abortion, medical care to religion, mental health care to race relations, gender identity to gender-neutral bathroom signs.
Amidst the barrage of opinions, I often hear the following sentiment: "This is what I think—and I am entitled to my opinion!"
Comments like this give me pause. It is true, after all, that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. It is also true that, in the United States, we value freedom of speech so that people can communicate their opinion without prosecution. We value the right to believe what we think is right and to express our opinions accordingly.
What is not true, however, is that an opinion is a fact. Alarmingly, most humans believe that their opinions are facts. We incorrectly believe that our thoughts are correct. I mean, if we think it, it must be true, right?
Wrong. The truth is that a fact is a statement that can be supported to be true or false by data or evidence. In contrast, an opinion is a personal expression of a person’s feelings or thoughts that may or may not be based in data. Indeed, many of our opinions are based on emotions, personal history, and values—all of which can be completely unsupported by meaningful evidence.
For example, you may hold the opinion that Trump was a better candidate than Clinton—just as you may hold the opinion that green is better than red, that blue cheese tastes better than cheddar, or that the world is flat instead of round. Whether your opinion is valuable depends on how you reached that conclusion. Is your opinion based in data? Or not?
Why does it matter to understand the difference between fact and opinion? Because although everyone is entitled to an opinion, not all opinions are equally valuable. This is precisely why opinions by “experts” are more valued in court testimony and evaluative reporting because they are more likely to provide opinions based on facts and knowledge.
So, the next time someone tells you that they have a strong opinion about something, understand what their opinion is based on. Is it based on measurable data with some compelling outcome? Or is it based on reactive emotional preferences and impressions? If it is the latter, take it with a grain of salt before you value it. And if you have a strong opinion about something that you know very little about, try to figure out why before you give strong credence to your belief.
The naked truth is this: Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But not all opinions are equally valuable. The truth is that opinions based in fact—in measurable, meaningful data—are more valuable than those that are not.
Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.