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The question of opinion is becoming an increasingly vexed issue all over the world, and in all kinds of disciplines.

While no one (well, no one in their right minds) would say that one isn’t entitled to the opinion that purple is a waaaaaay prettier colour than, say, orange, the same is not true when the question is about something with a demonstrable basis in fact.

Like, for example, science.

Today, I came across a fantastic article by Patrick Stokes, Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University in Australia. Titled ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion‘, he writes about the conversation he tries to have each year with his new students, about how, well, they’re not. Or, as he says:

“I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

Couldn’t agree more.

He then goes on to explain the difference between what Plato first distinguished as opinion (or common belief) and certain knowledge. There’s no point in arguing about the first, which will include such elevated subjects as whether korma is better than vindaloo, or whether or not Led Zeppelin kicks the arse of every single rock band before or since.

The problem, however, is when one gets to believing one is entitled to opinions about the second: actual facts. Knowledge. DATA. Here, anyone is entitled to what they think only if they can back it up.

Otherwise, we get to the situation which has been happening increasingly all over the Western world (I can’t speak for other parts of the world) – amateurs or, worse, people who know _nothing_ about a given subject, feel that their opinion on it is nonetheless just as valid as the opinion of an expert’s.

Sadly, examples abound. Vaccination. Homeopathy. Actually, most ‘alternative’ medicine. Climate change. The list goes on…

And this is where the media often makes the matter worse. In the interests of what they call ‘balance’, they will often put up the opinions of the factually wrong against those of the factually correct, giving both equal airtime and credibility.*

This sort of ‘balance’ should be there for matters of actual opinion – whether her dress at the Emmy’s was better than his, for example.

When it comes to matters where facts and data are required, this type of balance actually becomes bias, and not in favour of the facts. The media needs, desperately, to learn how to distinguish gumpf from truth.  If they can’t learn to do this better, they’ll only further undermine their credibility, and damage the ability of the societies they serve to make educated choices.

Anyway, read the rest of Stoke’s article – it looks at the concept of entitlement, what happened recently in Australia between ABC’s Mediawatch, WIN-TV  and the completely disingenuously named ‘Australian Vaccination Network’, and is well worth the read!

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* The cause of much tearing-out of hair both personally now, and professionally in my previous job at the SMC**.

** Gotta say, kudos to the SMC on their ongoing battle to introduce the press to the idea of real balance when it comes to science – y’all do good work :)