In a Debate, Make Distinctions About Opinions, Evidence, Data, Facts and Proof
[RE-PRINTED FROM A CAREER DAY HANDOUT]
West Allegheny Senior High School, Imperial, Pennsylvania
Whether talking about politics, the state of the American economy, or global warming, it is imperative that we distinguish between our personal opinions and the other forms of information that lead to our positions. The principles apply to any issue.
Uninformed opinions don’t carry much weight. Informed opinions are still opinions, but they are usually backed up by information that can be verified, retrieved, analyzed or calibrated. Such information may be hard data, measurements taken with reliable instruments, sworn testimony, historical records, etc. Such information also constitutes what is legally known as evidence.
Having evidence is not all that it is cracked up to be, however. Evidence may be flawed, based on lies, be unreliable, be inconsistent or be non-reproducible. But tangible information that is regarded as evidence is still better than unsupported opinion. Any good researcher or scientist is always prepared to challenge the evidence presented. Only a foolish person takes everything at face value.
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to test the evidence in ways that may be desirable, or even possible. Evidence is a place to start in forming opinions but, alas, it certainly is not the last step leading to proof of a circumstance. Data are easier to accept in any argument. It is often said that “the data are the data are the data.” You may not agree with the data, but unless you go out and get your own, the data given to you are the data you are (temporarily) obliged to use. Data are a form of evidence. Presumably, data connotes a set of information packets about a subject that was systematically obtained. Unfortunately, not all data are conclusive.
A single number from a spreadsheet of values is only one datum point, to be sure, but it is not very useful in the interpretation of evidence if considered without reference to other data points, or trends. Cherry picking data is all too common; and debaters on both sides of an issue are inclined to cherry pick only what they want. On the other hand, if data can be reproduced by independent observers, it leads to being accepted as fact. Alas, a “fact” may not turn out to be a fact, so more questioning on any issue is prudent.
Purported facts are often used as the basis of making claims. Establishing fact, or an array of facts is quite important in making legal arguments, claims pursuant to financial settlements, or personal positions that you may need to defend. But facts must be real in order to be part of legitimate arguments, debates, affidavits, and even personal opinions. Bad technique in seeking out facts leads to faulty data, faulty data leads to incorrect interpretation, and incorrect interpretation cannot establish real facts. A good scientist questions the facts, and questions the assumptions leading up to the purported facts. Those obtaining the facts in a case, or in a debate, are usually quite willing and even eager to discuss the issues, if they are confident of their point of view.
The problem with the arguments and opinions of most people with no background in science, or applications of the scientific method, is simply that they can and do form their opinions based on personal beliefs not backed up with evidence, data, facts or experience. In our society you will always hear, loud and clear, “I have a right to express my opinion”, followed by the deferential reply, “you are welcome to your opinion, but....” It takes a lot of time, effort and intellectual honesty to develop evidence and data; and to substantiate real facts. But it doesn’t take any time at all to dismiss a point of view that you don’t agree with by simply proclaiming (take your choice): 1) So-and-so is a crook, a liar, a political enemy, or someone with an agenda; 2) the evidence is false, misleading, inconclusive, or fabricated; 3) you didn’t get the evidence, data or facts yourself, so how would you know? Or maybe; 4) you were not there, so how do you know what happened? And besides, you are not a doctor, an engineer, an archeologist, a historian, or whatever… so what makes you think you know more about it than I do, huh, Professor Einstein?
Disparaging the individual always works to score points. We all need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we know very little about most things, and that is why we have schools. Elementary schools for elementary matters, high schools for higher matters, colleges where they teach you to think for yourself, and universities where they expect you to apply scientific method and reasoning to researchable problems. Prove your point and prove yourself. If and when you get an extensive college education, don’t think that you will always be praised for accomplishing something. Outside of your own family, people may resent you. In some fields, count on it. But if you believe as I do that it is important to make a contribution to society, you accept the resentment around you and continue in the search for the truth. Good luck on your journey.
Pellek International Consulting