Against Opinion

Opinion is a slippery concept. Especially when you try to distinguish it from fact.

Now I know what you’re thinking. As a matter of fact, I did just fine on that section in third grade. “Babe Ruth has the highest slugging percentage of all time” is a fact; “Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all time” is an opinion. Clear enough. But which quality, exactly, distinguishes them? Does ‘opinion’ just mean ‘more vague than fact’?

As far as I can tell, people distinguish opinion from fact in 3 mutually distinct ways, all of which are listed in the dictionary:

  1. An opinion is a value, and – as distinct from a fact – is usually thought to be vulnerable only to internal critique. It’s subjective, largely independent of facts, and cannot be disproved by them. Conflicting opinions in this sense are generally irreconcilable, except if some other common opinion is held even more deeply. The Babe Ruth example would be of this type, because it relies on the connecting value judgment that “slugging percentage determines a player’s greatness”.
  2. An opinion is a belief held with less than some threshold certainty – or perhaps a belief which should be so held, though the “should” here would also be an opinion in the first sense. I’m not sure whether the next president will be a Democrat, but my opinion is that (s)he will. This, too, is subjective, though by this criterion an opinion might eventually graduate into a fact. In the spirit of this definition was written a forum signature I saw long ago: “All statements on the internet are postfixed with an invisible IMHO.”
  3. An opinion is a belief with less than some threshold consensus. This is similar to the previous definition, except the criterion is objective – though not based on any feature of the proposition itself. By this metric, even if something has been conclusively proven or disproven, it still counts as opinion so long as “public opinion” has yet to catch up. From the fact that op-eds advocating for minimum wages are still published, we can gather that the opinion section of the newspaper is opinion in this sense. This sort of opinion, too, might eventually graduate into a fact (even if consensus settles on it being false). Facts, likewise, might be “demoted” into opinions over time.

opinion (One might hope that these last two will correspond in practice; that people will believe things with less certainty the more disagreement exists on it. But realistically, this is neither necessary nor necessarily desirable. We do value the quality of sticking to one’s guns in the face of opposition, after all – at least in principle – and even dignify it with the name “integrity”.)

A word that equivocates among these three meanings is not a very useful word. For one thing, only the first definition distinguishes itself unambiguously from fact; the other two require drawing an arbitrary line somewhere on the scale of certainty or consensus, lest we call all propositions opinions.

My own preference is to jettison the word ‘opinion’ entirely; to teach third-graders the fact-value distinction in its place, and also epistemic humility in general to account for the other two definitions. (Note that I have called this my preference rather than leaving the meaning ambiguous with opinion!) I can, in fact, think of no situation where the word serves to clarify rather than obfuscate. Whether as a cudgel (“That’s just, like, your opinion, man”) or as a shield (“This is just my opinion, but…”), there is all the difference in the world between claiming a proposition to be a value, an uncertain belief, or a controversial belief.

Values are meaningful. Certainty is meaningful. Consensus is meaningful. Opinion? Time to toss it from the lexicon.




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  • 1

    Gil Dancy

    Aug 21, 2015 at 22:37 | Reply

    Fact as used in this post, I.e. “Babe Ruth has the highest slugging percentage of all time” is only objective within the logic of how you are using the phrase. In other words, by focusing on Ruth’s slugging, you are cutting out a portion of a whole. Why distinguish Ruth’s hitting from his fielding? That in itself is a judgement. “Fact” itself works within a logic that necessitates the usefulness of fact…that “fact” is different from and better than something termed “value” or “opinion” is a distinction that came about only recently (with the dawn of the scientific mind).

    • 2

      Cameron Harwick

      Aug 21, 2015 at 23:18

      You’re right, “…highest slugging percentage” only makes sense within the framework of the constitutive rules of baseball, which involves some interpretation, which is equivalent to value judgments as to relevance. But ultimately this is true of all perception. The overwhelming majority of “bare” facts – in the sense of descriptions of physical objects solely in terms of other physical objects – are entirely irrelevant for all human purposes. This sort of value judgment (interpretation) is unavoidable even at such a basic level as perception and scientific observation: the number of irrelevant facts about any situation is infinite; you can only get on by using prior values (“theory”) that tell you what’s relevant and what can safely be filtered out.

      This is what’s meant by all perception being theory-laden. As you point out, some facts only make sense by taking for granted some prior value judgment. My point is that this is true of everything that we could possibly call a fact. We can only perceive an object that has relevance to us, and the criteria of relevance are set in advance of any particular perception. This is true no less in science than in baseball, because perception’s constitutive rules filter out irrelevant information just as baseball’s constitutive rules filter out illegal moves.

      (I should add, though, that it’s still useful to call these facts “objective” so far as you and I share the constitutive rules within which they make sense – which in the case of perception, and probably even for baseball, we almost certainly do.)

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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