August 4, 2015

On Opinions, Facts, and Rhetorical Sleight of Hand

I teach literature and composition. This means that most of my work entails teaching rhetoric and argument--the art of developing coherent claims and supporting them with appropriate evidence for a given audience. Quite often, I come up against a common problem most of us in higher education complain about: students have no idea what an argument is, and think that "argument" is different from "opinion." Students also see "opinion" as magically unassailable--so much so that students commonly ask, "So, is this paper about proving something, or is it my opinion?",  as if opinions are by their nature things we don't have to support.

So at first I enjoyed a recent piece by Jef Rouner in The Houston Press called, "No, it's not your opinion: you're just wrong." The title captures Rouner's basic thesis: too many people shut down real debate by claiming that their position is "my opinion," and therefore incapable of being incorrect. But Rouner's argument itself represents a basic problem I tend to have with this kind of piece.

The problem is that too often, this kind of promising distinction between supported and unsupported opinions becomes a rhetorical sleight of hand designed to undermine rather than engage positions with which one disagrees. Just as my students think that "opinion" means "no one can say I'm wrong," often "fact/opinion" arguments like Rouner's imply that "opinion" is what YOU have, but "facts" are what I have--without actually coming out and saying it. Rouner implies this in two of his examples. The first comes here:

The problem comes from people whose opinions are actually misconceptions. If you think vaccines cause autism you are expressing something factually wrong, not an opinion. The fact that you may still believe that vaccines cause autism does not move your misconception into the realm of valid opinion. Nor does the fact that many others share this opinion give it any more validity.
To quote John Oliver, who on his show Last Week Tonight referenced a Gallup poll showing one in four Americans believe climate change isn’t real:
Who gives a shit? You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: “Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?” or “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats?”
Rouner ostensibly claims there are opinions that are "misconceptions," and others that are "factually wrong." This at first seems an easy enough critique, but in fact, it isn't always easy to tell whether an "opinion" is a misconception or a factual error, and that's really important to understand. Opinions--claims, really--are supported by evidence, and it's the evidence our judgment works upon when we use our inductive reasoning (I will ignore Rouner's slippery handling of "opinion" in the above excerpt). Take the Oliver quote Rouner uses. Oliver clumps together several different sorts of claims as if they are all of the same: climate change (the implied first claim), a claim about quantity, and two claims using simple induction. But clearly the first claim (the implied one about climate change) is a manifestly different and more complicated claim than the other three because of the evidence it takes to support each kind of claim (i.e., while climate change evidence is complex, contradictory, voluminous, and sometimes difficult to interpret, the other three claims rest on simple mathematical demonstration and direct individual experience). To pretend that the first claim is as self-evidently factual as the other three is the sleight of hand; it presumes where it needs to prove. I'm not at all engaging the debate about whether climate change is real; I'm simply pointing out that in and of itself, claims about climate change rest upon more complicated and complex evidence than the other types of claims Rouner cites.

Rouner's other example comes in the last paragraph, and I think it's here that his rhetorical slipperiness is clearest:

You can be wrong or ignorant. It will happen. Reality does not care about your feelings. Education does not exist to persecute you. The misinformed are not an ethnic minority being oppressed. What’s that? Planned Parenthood is chopping up dead babies and selling them for phat cash? No, that’s not what actually happened. No, it’s not your opinion. You’re just wrong. 

To be fair, before he gets to this paragraph, Rouner acknowledges plenty of areas in which opinions are not easily verified but still probable, which is why we have to always be attuned to whether opinions are "well-founded" or not. But this paragraph demonstrates exactly the kind of sleight of hand I mentioned earlier: it takes a complicated matter that most of us are only recently learning about, a matter about which there is an array of emerging and messy evidence, and (1) dismisses out of hand the "opinion" he appears not to like, and (2) supports it with a single link that doesn't actually speak to the real debate that is unfolding in the news. He presumably thinks the claim he implies about the Planned Parenthood controversy is as self-evident as the fact that there are hats. Again, I am not opining on the Planned  Parenthood issue itself; I am pointing out that Rouner does no better in addressing an actual argument about Planned Parenthood than the bogey-man interlocutor he accuses of clinging to factually incorrect and misconceived opinions in the face of contradictory evidence.

What Rouner has done, it seems, is simply stack the deck against claims he finds disagreeable: claims he happens to like are essentially "fact" when they are instead  conclusions based on complicated, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes barely-emerging evidence.

So yes, we should always look carefully at the claims people make and the evidence they base them on; we should always practice a healthy amount of skepticism. This is one of the vital components of reasoned debate and ethical persuasion. But this is true for everyone in a debate--those who think their opinions are sacred and unassailable, as well as those so convinced of their righteousness that they think their conclusions are virtually self-evident facts.

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