The virtues of no opinion

5 minute read
Before Siskel and Ebert: "Pollice Verso" (1872) by Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Before Siskel and Ebert: "Pollice Verso" (1872) by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

A common saying states that opinions are like a certain nether orifice of the human body: i.e. everyone has one. That certainly seems to be true in America's noisy and nasty 21st-century culture. Not only does everyone have opinions, we're now all positively required to have them, however half-baked, misinformed, or just plain goofy.

The latest case study, of course, is the Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 (you know a news story is opinion-worthy when it acquires portentously capitalized and self-consciously dramatic titles in the media). How does a Boeing 777 airliner with 227 passengers and 12 crew simply disappear? Did it crash? Was it hijacked? Maybe it was aliens abducting the plane and everyone aboard. Maybe the aircraft passed through a chrono-synclastic space-time infundibulum. It could have even somehow gone back in time to the age of the dinosaurs, like in an old Twilight Zone episode. Or maybe (my favorite crazy theory) the plane just kept going higher and higher until Earth's gravity couldn't hold it down anymore, and Flight MH370 is now drifting off into deep space, just passing the Moon on its way to Mars.

Of course, aside from bloviating blowhards and pathetic psychics, we have plenty of hypothesizing from the experts: pilots, NTSB investigators, aviation journalists, air traffic controllers — the people whose job it is, directly or indirectly, to ask what happened when an aircraft's scheduled journey goes awry. They know what they're talking about, and their opinions should be taken seriously. But, if the interviewer lets them, they still take pains to qualify their musings as mere speculations, reluctant to draw conclusions in the absence of facts and evidence. Because they know that opinions are just that: opinions.

Unfortunately, our news media and culture in general don't like that. Neither do our more personalized social media. Facebook, Twitter, message boards, even old-fashioned face-to-face nonelectronic conversation (remember that?) are awash with similar demands. What do you think? What's your opinion? C'mon, you must have one! What's the matter with you? Pick a side. Make a commitment. Declare your allegiance. Make up your damn mind already.

Enough. Whatever happened to the radical concept of reserving judgment, of declining to form an opinion, until one has sufficient information — information, not personal bias, prejudice, or pet cause — upon which to base it? Why are those who refuse to express an opinion, whether on Flight MH370, the Crimean situation, Justin Bieber's shenanigans, the current Dancing with the Stars contestants, or the latest HBO megaseries, somehow suspect?

It's not a rhetorical question. When idle and uninformed (or even serious and astute) speculation is valued too highly and repeated ad nauseum, facts and evidence are inevitably overlooked and disregarded, and too much emphasis falls upon the conveniently facile, the emotionally satisfying, the quick and easy answers that conform to our favorite biases and cognitive predilections.

O say can you hearsay?

There's a reason why lawyers in court aren't allowed to speculate or bring forth hearsay to support their case. To do so turns the proceedings into a morass of subjectivity and emotional posturing, instead of an objective quest for truth based on evidence. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed that we can each have our own opinions, but we cannot each have our own facts. When we allow the line between opinion and fact to be blurred or dissolved, we set out on a dark road that leads to McCarthyism, lynch mobs, and Salem witch trials.

Withholding judgment isn't easy, and it doesn't come naturally. Using our imaginations is part of what makes us human. We love to speculate, to theorize, to seek answers and explanations. And we long for endings, resolutions, tidy explanations, closure. We can get them in our art, our fictions, because those are created and controlled by human beings. And we get really annoyed when certain artists don't play by those rules. Just ask Sopranos creator David Chase, who was figuratively lynched by fans for ending that influential TV series with an abrupt and ambiguous cut to black.

Unfortunately, the tidiness of our artistic fictions has conditioned us to expect the same in real life. Alas, the universe doesn't always cooperate. Things happen for no reason, with no resolution. We would do better to learn to suspend judgment sometimes, to wait until all the facts are in, to be comfortable with saying simply, "I don't know." That's not an argument in favor of ignorance or suppressing inquiry; it's an argument in favor of waiting to find out.

It may not matter much when the issue at hand is a TV reality show or a pop music figure, but it's of major importance when we're considering matters that affect us all, particularly those that are ultimately dependent upon actual real-world facts: genetically modified foods, climate change, childhood vaccinations, fracking, nuclear power. Too often in these and other matters, passionate opinions are equated with evidence, emotional sincerity is validated as fact, and illusion, delusion, and wishful thinking are mistaken for reality.

As Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams remarked, "All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well-supported in logic and argument than others." In other words, there's nothing wrong in delaying an opinion, or not having one at all, if you don't know what the hell you're talking about. Adams's own character Zaphod Beeblebrox once snapped, "I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer." Zaphod even had two heads, not just one, to work with. But he wasn't afraid to say "I don't know."

Or to quote another great 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell: "What we need is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out." Belief doesn't require evidence, but to find out — to know — always does. We would do well to keep that in mind.

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