investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Should opinions be based on facts?

In Academic reflection, Facts and opinion, Interesting research, Misinformation, Neuroscience on March 30, 2014 at 7:00 am

“I think people should be able to express political opinion even if they get their facts wrong. This is a country in which people have a pretty robust sense of their right to their own opinion … Are we going to say that if you get your facts wrong that should be a prohibition on your right to express your political opinion?”

– Australian Attorney-General George Brandis speaking to Rafael Epstein on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne’s Drive show, March 27, 2014 (Listen here. Starts at about 8:07)

GEORGE BRANDIS MADE THIS COMMENT during a discussion about his government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Critics of the proposed changes say the amendments are not really designed to protect free speech – which the government argues has been hobbled by certain sections of the laws as they have stood for nearly 20 years – but are in fact designed to allow (even encourage) bigoted attitudes to flourish.

This, the critics say, is typical of political conservatives’ view that curbing “offensive” discussions about minority groups is a form of political correctness, which in their eyes is an inherently evil practice.

These critics also argue that bigoted and offensive views encourage racism, discrimination and social discord, and so should be curbed, in the interests of a society that is egalitarian, fair and all-inclusive. In response, George Brandis said in Parliament that people have the right to hold bigoted and offensive views.

But George Brandis’ view that opinion does not need to be based on fact is something new. It goes further than defending the right to hold bigoted or offensive views because it undermines the community’s understanding of the rules around political discourse in a democracy.

These rules – unstated but understood – say that the two sides of politics should engage in rational debate based on sound argument, based on fact, and that the best argument should win the day. If political discourse were not based on the battle between facts and reason, why do we hear politicians so often accusing their opponents of being “wrong”? Opinions cannot be wrong, they can only be wrongly held; by saying their opponents are “wrong” politicians are saying that their opponents’ facts are wrong.

Brandis’ position suggests, rather, that how you persuade people to support your position is irrelevant; facts aren’t necessary, you can say whatever you need to get people on side. (This also prompts the questions: How wrong are your facts allowed to be? Can you deliberately lie to sway people with your opinion-based argument or must your wrong-fact-based opinion be honestly held?)

The attorney-general is arguing, in effect, that ignorance is a legitimate position to hold, of equal value to a position reached through thoughtful assessment and weighing of the facts.

In effect, George Brandis has extended his defence of people’s right to hold bigoted and/or offensive views to include their right to be ignorant.

For someone researching the rise and effectiveness of fact-checking operations as an extension of quality journalism, this is more than a little depressing. It feels that one side of the contest is cheating – knowingly cheating– bringing the “game” into disrepute. It also feels like a denial of the advances civilisation has made since reason and The Enlightenment swept away the ignorance of the Dark Ages; when superstition was challenged by science based on evidence – based on testable fact.

George Brandis’ insistence that political opinions don’t need to be based on facts might explain why Conservatives (in the US)  tend to be more often caught out by fact-checking operations such as PolitiFact.com. When “fact” is used as the litmus test for the merit of political claims and arguments, those on the right fall short of the standard more often, and so are branded as deceitful more often. (The response from right-wing bloggers is to say PolitiFact is biased towards liberal political views. See here, here and here).

Saying that opinions don’t need to be based on facts is the equivalent of saying “I don’t need to justify my position with facts or rational argument because I think what I think and have no desire to be persuaded otherwise”. It’s the equivalent of saying “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, and we should all remember Patrick Stokes’ attention-getting retort to that idea, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion”, published on The Conversation in 2012. (If you don’t know it, it’s worth a look.)

This reluctance by political conservatives to change their minds no matter what the evidence is explained by research that has found that the right-wing brain tends to be more rigid in its thinking processes, less flexible and less open to changing its mind than the liberal brain. This difference in brain structure, it has been argued, is why even educated conservatives reject the science behind climate change.

Conservatives already reject moral relativism as a legitimate view of the world; why would they accept this “factual relativism” unless they also consider double standards, hypocrisy and unethical behaviour to be relative concepts?

Fact-checking websites try to hold politicians to account for the things they say. Why shouldn’t we also hold people to account for the opinions they hold? If an opinion isn’t based on fact, what is it based on? A feeling? A fortune cookie? Pronouncements from The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Facts aren’t perfect – they can be as slippery as a bag of oiled worms and sometimes impossible to hold down. But to say opinions based on wrong facts are acceptable goes too far.

Politics can be a brutal, cynical, soul-destroying business. Let’s not debase it further.

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