Search form

"It's Just My Opinion" and the Burden of Proof

I'm waging a war on "opinion". If you've been on social media at any point in the last ten years or so (good for you if you've avoided it), you've likely run into more than a few friends and associates sharing things that are "just my opinion". You know what we're talking about: they take on a highly divisive topic with nothing more than a click, and defend it by simply claiming that they are allowed their opinion. And surely, by their First Amendment rights, they are correct. Over the years, our Facebook and Twitter feeds have become a hotbed for unfounded claims, unverified or false information, and mind-numbingly myopic arguments one could only very loosely refer to as "rhetoric". Some of us love to dive right in for the thrill of the battle; some of us avoid it like the plague. But there's an elephant in the virtual room that we all have to address, and one as educators we need to embrace fully in our classrooms: your opinions don't always matter. At least, not the way you're using the term.

Harsh, right? It might feel like the type of language we would worry might discourage our students. I mean, we all have a voice...right? We all have freedom of speech; a freedom that must not be hindered. But I’m not talking about what people have the right to say; instead I’m concerned with whether or not they are saying what they mean. The fact is, that too often we assume that provable or disprovable claims can be considered 'just "opinions". "Opinions" – as we are often taught at a young age – are quite different from fact. "Opinion", by definition, is a judgment that can be based on fact or knowledge – it doesn’t have to. Yet in the event where facts are available, what role does "opinion" really have, either in the classroom or in a larger socio-political conversation? What is the function of an opinion, if it is not supported with sound evidence and logical reasoning?

Opinions are reserved for things like pizza toppings and music tastes. "Taste" over such things is hardly debatable. Try as you may, you’ll find it quite difficult to persuade someone whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza (it does, but this is beside the point altogether). If your taste buds are not adjusted to the heavenly combination of savory salt and tropical fruit, your opinion will still stand. Many things inform our taste in music; a taste that changes throughout our lives. Some are inspired by function: prefer to use music for its soothing or calming abilities, or conversely, as a pump-up, first thing in the morning, on the way to work. Others might prefer the poetic sensibilities of certain lyrics, or even a more clinical appreciation for instrumental craftsmanship. I think we can all agree (despite the fun of debating them anyway) that there’s no denying these sorts of opinions and accept them for what they are: individual preferences.

Legislature, economics, public health…these things are not Hawaiian pizza. If our students are under the impression that their unsupported opinions are still just as valuable when objective data is available to support an argument, we are doing them a huge disservice. As soon as a claim can be proven, disproven, or even discussed, by using data and verifiable facts, "opinions" can turn into something much more nefarious: uninformed stubbornness or bigotry. Sure, we can debate the validity of causation and the ethos of an argument. We can also disagree on the values associated with a particular debate’s impact or outcome on our world. But if our arguments are not being driven by sound logic and observable evidence, we are simply screaming at brick walls.

A Rhetorical Shift

When working with students (and more generally, in daily interactions), we need to change how we talk about our thoughts. Recently, I have almost completely taken the phrase, "What’s your opinion on __________?" out of my personal lexicon. In truth, when we use this phrase, we are inviting our students to share their thoughts – often based on prior knowledge or media soundbites – or repeat the many arguments they’ve heard in their socio-political bubbles. It rewards and reinforces the value of agreeing with your immediate environment and community, disregarding any real critical thought. When someone asks your "opinion" on something, they rarely wish to learn something new: they are either looking to affirm their beliefs by hearing your agreement or affirming their beliefs by exhibiting their disagreement. In the end, what has been gained?

Instead – along with teaching source credibility, logical fallacies, and sound reasoning skills – I ask my students two questions when something is up for discussion:

  1. What do you know about __________?
  2. What conclusions have you made from this information?

Whereas asking their "opinion" is simply asking for an unjustified claim, these two important questions begin with the burden of proof. We should ask students to share what they know. What they value in that data set might still be based on opinion, but at very least, it shifts the emphasis from the claim to the observable facts. Even when debating the virtues of something like Hawaiian pizza, this format encourages deeper conversation, where the speaker has the opportunity to at least share the reasoning for their preference before being shut down with an opposing claim. It helps us to better understand each other, and it’s simply a healthier way to talk.

The problem with this approach to complex discussions is that it often leaves people vulnerable. There is a very real possibility that when asked question one, we might find ourselves claiming ignorance. Although this might feel uncomfortable in the moment, it is absolutely necessary to improving the sort of dialogues we participate in on a daily basis. The idea that everyone needs to know everything just because it is available to all of us on the Internet is extremely dangerous, and a fallacy we have been keeping up for way too long. I want my students to both be bold enough to admit when they need more information and curious and open enough to investigate. We can’t learn if we can’t admit what we don’t know, and our social expectation that everyone "know" immediately is forcing us into misinformed, quickly-constructed claims that, once said, must continue to be defended, on the threat of being discredited altogether.

This is no way for us to talk to each other. No way to make decisions that impact real people on our planet. As my students say, we need to "make it official". "Opinions" should be left to taste alone and are ineffective in communicating our needs and understanding our world. If we are making statements that can be either supported or questioned with hard data and evidence, we are really making an argumentative "claim", and should be ready to stand by and defend it. Only by appealing to logic in this way will we be able to effectively share our thinking with others: logic is a common language, and necessary for the sustainability of our species. When we close the door with "just my opinion", we are closing the doors to collaboration and compassion. Our world is in a rhetorical crisis, and in so many respects we are simply not hearing each other. Let’s teach our students how to share what they know with each other.

Let’s teach them to be hungry to hear new ideas. To seek out new truths. And to ask for more than opinions.

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.