Monday, July 16, 2018

When was the last time you changed your opinion?

Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying, "The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinion."

Some argue that he was the wisest of the Renaissance turtles.

I instantly relate to this quote, and you probably do, too, because if you're on the internet, then you've probably experienced the phenomenon of someone saying something unbelievably dumb and wrong, and, upon correction, saying, "Well, that's just my opinion."

You might have also seen the converse: when someone dismisses an opinion as "just" an opinion.

An opinion is a belief or judgement on a matter that is either a) has no definitive, objective answer, or b) is not based on facts (either because the facts are unknown or because there is conflicting data).

Let's dive in.

An example of Scenario A would be two children who argue about whether red or blue is a better color for a bike.  There's no correct answer to that question.

Scenario B is a little trickier.  Consider ssomeone who thinks that GMOs cause cancer.  This isn't based on fact.  There are studies that both confirm and refute this statement, and they all have issues with them.  There are facts available and there is a conclusive answer, but it's not immediately clear on what that answer is.  (Answer: GMOs are safe, and most food is genetically modified.  There are over a thousand studies that demonstrate this.)

The danger of people using the "opinion" defense against ignorance is that we end up with anti-vaxxers and Flat Earthers and Scientologists: people who cannot challenge their beliefs and end up maintaining dangerous, extreme viewpoints.

 Hilariously wrong.

There is such a thing as a wrong opinion.  A wrong opinion is one that, when confronted with facts that refute it, does not change.

It's easy to dismiss anti-vaxxers, Flater Earthers, and Scientologists as wackos, but in this digital age, there's a LOT of misinformation out there and it's easy to find "facts" that support pretty much any point of view.  Basically anything from the website "Natural News," for example, is garbage.  (Other sites/FaceBook pages on my shit list for bad science: David Wolfe, Food Babe, and Eat Local Grown.  The last one especially pisses me off because I absolutely think people should eat local and I feel like they're misappropriating good advice to mask their awful pseudo-science.)

So how do we combat this?  One way is to challenge our own points of views.  Most of us accept that our viewpoints are correct and never take time to cross-examine them.  But it's worthwhile to examine our beliefs and ask ourselves if we've learned anything new that challenges those.  And if we're feeling defensive, then perhaps our belief wasn't on as firm a foundation as we thought.

I should probably give one small disclaimer before launching into an (ironically opinionated) discussion about why opinions should be malleable: I am only talking about opinion scenarios in which there are consequences.  Most opinions have consequences; most opinions influence actions.  But some don't, and in that case, they don't matter.  If a person wants to insist that DJ Khaled is talented, I don't feel inclined to argue with them, because although they are wrong, it's of no lasting consequence to anyone.

He rhymed "kodak" with "kodak."

So, while reading this blog post about challenging beliefs, keep in mind:
  1. When challenging others, pick your battles.
  2. Try to find points to agree on.
  3. Not all opinions need to be changed.
  4. When challenging your own opinions, pick the ones with the biggest impact on your actions.
  5. Understand that change comes gradually.
  6. Understand that having an emotional investment in the opinions of others is usually unhealthy.
  7. Be cautious not to confuse FaceBook or other social platforms for Meat Space; it's (usually) not worth losing friends over a Reddit meme.
 Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

So!  Now that that little disclaimer it out of the way, I'll start the ball rolling by giving two examples of my opinion changing recently:

First of all, I have typically been very politically fiscally conservative.  I was raised in a conservative household and registered as Republican when I first registered to vote.  Over the last year, I have found myself supporting more and more social programs.  It seems to me that the "cost" of these programs, both financially and to my own sense of capitalistic "fairness," is less than the benefit it brings to society.  When I look at countries that are more heavily taxed but have more social programs, I discover happier citizens and better societal outcomes overall.

So, at this point in time, I no longer consider myself a fiscal conservative, but someone who leans more toward the support of social welfare programs.

Second of all, I have decided that quesadillas are sandwiches.

 Fight me.

Follow me here on this one because it's a bit more complicated than the capitalism vs. socialism thing above.

On the sandwich-definition index, there's two categories: construction and ingredients.  I am something of an ingredient anarchist, but I firmly believe the construction of a sandwich is what makes it what it is.  To me, a sandwich is an item that has a bread-like outside, either two pieces or one piece folded or split, containing contents which can be eaten without touching by using the bread to convey them to the mouth.  The sandwich must be capable of being eaten by hand.

So to me, a burrito or a wrap isn't a sandwich because it's one bread piece, but a pita is a sandwich because it's a piece split in hand to contain ingredients.  (Side note: is cereal a soup?  I have always argued that yes, it is a chaotic neutral soup.)

If every meal does not send you into mild panic due to over self-examination of core beliefs and questioning of self, 
then you are doing it wrong.

Shortly after I gave my belief of what constitutes a "sandwich," Andrew pointed out that, by my definitions, quesadillas and soft tacos are sandwiches.

I was dumbfounded.  A quesadilla isn't a sandwich!  I quickly got defensive, trying to figure out how to explain myself.  A quesadilla, however, fits all the criteria.  Two pieces of bread with ingredients in between (traditional sandwichy ingredients, no less) that is eaten by hand.  I have never considered a quesadilla a sandwich but was suddenly forced to either redefine sandwich-hood or accept the quesadilla into the sandwich family.

In the end, I could not figure out an addendum to exclude the quesadilla and so I changed my opinion.  The quesadilla is a sandwich.

The thing about this story that struck me is that, when my view was challenged, I quickly became defensive.  This is a red flag.  If you have an opinion and you find yourself getting upset and defensive when it's challenged, you might know, deep down, that your opinion needs changed.  People who are secure about their opinions should not be upset when they are challenged.  Look at anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers, and Scientologists: all of them freak out when others challenge them.  Why?  Because they probably are worried that, if they actually self-examined, they would realize that their views are bogus.

Observe these two people's reactions when faced with facts that might challenge their beliefs:

One accepted the information in stride (Purple), and the other lost his mind (Orange).  Purple may or may not change her opinion that this ridiculous chocolate sculpture is worthwhile, but she asked for information when challenged and accepted it gracefully.  That's the way to live your life.  The defensive over-reaction of Orange indicates, to me, a person who is rigid and uncompromising in his beliefs and lacks the capability to learn or grow as a person.

Side note: let's stop bashing politicians for "flip-flopping."  I sort of expect a person to change their stance on things over the course of decades; a politician who has been in the game more than ten years and has "stood firm" on everything is, to me, on par with a Flat Earther or anti-vaxxer.  Can you imagine if you actually thought you should be PROUD of believing the same things you did when you were 19 years old?  When I was 19, I wanted a Dethklok tattoo and still hoped my childhood Beanie Babies might be worth something today.  In the course of your existence, you are bound to have at least one or two utterly bone-headed opinions.  If you don't, then you are a dull milquetoast person who stands for nothing and you should re-evaluate why you even exist.

For a lot of people, their views define who they are.  Therefore changing their opinion feels like a total upheaval of self.  I don't think people should let their opinions define them; opinions are, after all, non-definitional.  A person who changed their favorite color from red to blue is still the same person.

Views are based on core values, which means that the views should be malleable; they change as we learn new facts, and we find better ways to apply our core values to them.  When we feel challenged, what we should ask is, what core value is my opinion based on?

Consider the following scenario: a person loves Orca whales and wants to help them.  That's a core value.  They go to school for marine biology and then go to work at Sea World to help Orcas.  Then they see the documentary Blackfish, do some research, and realize that Sea World isn't actually helping Orcas at all.

The Orca-lover is now at a crossroads.  They can change their actions to fit their core belief, which, regrettably, means admitting to prior ignorance and possibly receiving backlash from their acquaintances.  This is obviously the harder of the two options.  Or, they can throw their core value out of the window and, in violation of their own self-professed beliefs, continue doing an action they now know to be wrong.  (Consider the Bunny Lady of Los Angeles.)

Ultimately, the question of changing one's opinion boils down to, "Are my core values more important to me than my ego or my self-image (how others see me)?"

This is all assuming one can listen to new and conflicting information, research it without bias, and then choose to believe it, of course.  Plenty of people simply dismiss facts as "fake" to protect their opinions.  Which is one reason why we should all push ourselves to search for primary sources of information, and learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Always research sources and credentials.  ("Some scientists suggest that marijuana causes cancer."  Who are they?  Where's the study?  Is there counter-evidence?  What do most scientists say?)

Doubt anything with a title for a name.  ("Does marijuana cure cancer?"  If they'd shown conclusively that it does or doesn't, that would be a big headline.  This is just clickbait and the answer is probably less interesting than simply yes or no.)

Doubt anything that seems too good to be true or makes big, bold claims.  ("Marijuana causes cancer!" Science and politics and economics are complex; saying X causes Y or X cures Y is almost always a gross over-simplification.)

Real news isn't clickbait.  Real news is often the harder-to-read, more boring-to-read option.("Ingesting cannabis by smoking may be a risk factor for lung cancer.")

One of the reasons real news is so dull is because it's trying to reach a large audience... including those who may disagree with it.  For news to be credible, it must present the facts in a non-biased and non-confrontational manner.

Real news.  Boring, but real.

Make no mistake: it's important to challenge opinions non-aggressively.  People who feel attacked get defensive and then refuse to listen.  I have, first-hand, witnessed this: in an internet forum, I watched as a man who was 'on the fence' about vaccinating his children was called a stupid idiot child-abuser.  His response?  To start arguing the opposing side and defending his actions, thus solidifying his belief.  No one gave him any actual resources to information about why vaccines are safe (or why anti-vaccine studies cannot be trusted).  People just yelled at him until, in a furious and self-righteous rage, he quit the discussion, though not before being radicalized.

And everyone should be comfortable letting others change their opinions when new information and facts arise.  All too often, extremists are so thoroughly mocked and isolated that they fear leaving.  (This is a tactic well-documented within Scientology, other cults, and multi-level marketing schemes.)  As I wrote in my post about radical inclusivity, we should try to make the world a place where people can switch sides if they realize they were wrong; we should make sure they know they have a place to come back to.  If we don't, then people will only cling to their beliefs harder.

No one has ever changed their beliefs because they got called stupid.

If everyone took the time to question their beliefs a little, and felt comfortable enough to change those beliefs in light of new information, the world might just be a better place. 

We would still have Giordano Bruno, aka the poor man's Copernicus, aka the oft-forgotten Yellow Turtle.

If you can't think of a time when you changed your opinion in the last year, then it might be time to do some soul-searching, because either you are a bland person with no opinions, or you are not opening you mind and listening to alternative viewpoints.  As uncomfortable as it is to leave our bubbles and sometimes realize we were wrong about something, it's a good exercise, one that makes us better human beings.  It's a way to be more open and accepting toward those we don't agree with, and a way to find find common ground between us.  It's also my hope that the open exchange of information will usually lead to the truth coming out.  For those hard questions in life, such as whether or not a quesadilla is a sandwich, there's answers.  But we have to be open and able to accept them.  Which sometimes means eating a big ol' crow sandwich.

Crow quesadilla.

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