Saturday, January 28, 2006

Opinions and Anatomy

Last week, I briefly mentioned that intelligent people are often dismissed as being part of an "intellectual elite" -- especially when they express an opinion that goes contrary to what we're told is (or should be) the general consensus.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, of course, but while pondering it, I was reminded of the old saying, "Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one, and they all stink."

It's a clever saying, I suppose, but implicit in that sentiment is the belief that all opinions are of equal value, whether they're based on knowledge or whether they're baseless and stupid. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.

For example, I could be of the opinion that the Sun orbits around the Earth, while someone more learned might maintain that it's actually the other way around. In this case, the second opinion is based on knowledge and an understanding of the facts, so clearly that opinion would be of greater value.

But that's not a good example, since the second opinion isn't so much an opinion as it is an actual fact. (For the sake of discussion, let's forget for a moment that just a few hundred years ago, Galileo was ostracized for publicizing this fact.) Anyway, here's a better example:

Let's say I happen to believe that the pyramid of Giza was built by gigantic flying reptiles. This may seem ridiculous at first, but don't dismiss it too quickly, because it makes perfect sense: The reptiles could have cut the rocks with their strong jaws and sharp teeth, then put them on their backs and flown them to the top of the pyramid, where other reptiles could set the rocks carefully in place. Sure, my belief requires me to believe in flying reptiles with both motivation and masonry skills, and no, I've never actually seen a flying reptile before, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. As a matter of fact, there's no way to prove that they don't exist. So it's a pretty good theory. Okay, it's not actually a theory, since there's no real evidence to support it and it can't be tested or falsified, so let's stick to calling it an opinion.

And we're all entitled to our opinions, no matter how idiotic they may be. However, if you were actually interested in learning how the pyramids were built, you'd probably want to pay attention to the opinions of someone credible, such as an Egyptologist or an archaeologist who has studied the building techniques of ancient Egypt.

So it should be pretty obvious that opinions aren't all the same, and that some opinions -- the ones that are based on knowledge and deduction, for example -- have much more value than others.

By the way, not all assholes are the same either. They range in size and color and age and probably in countless other ways that I'm not even aware of but a proctologist probably would be. And I'm not an expert on the subject, but how much they stink is probably just a matter of personal hygiene.