Received opinion versus evidence and reason

Too often people accept opinions on the authority of tradition or popularity, what I call “received opinion”, instead of forming their own opinions by reasoning on the evidence. I think there is much harm in this.

Now, we could argue for hours about the necessity of received opinions, and what constitutes a valid authority, and our responsibility for doing our own fact-checking, and how out-of-reach the evidence might be in day-to-day life. But I don’t want to get into those arguments, the subject of much philosophy. Instead, I want to offer a few instances where widely-held received opinion is contradicted by easily-obtained information, or by the complete lack of supporting evidence. Then I will mention some of the damage done by relying on received opinion.

First, there is creationism versus evolution. Creationism is a received opinion based upon the authority of scripture. Nobody can test it in any way, and there is no evidence of any kind for it. On the other hand, there is an abundance of evidence for evolution, and it can be seen occurring in hundreds of species right now.

(By the way, to counter the idea that evolution is “just a theory” that is still being debated, it should be noted that there are actually two issues: evolution itself, which is a fact supported by mountains of evidence, and the theory of how it works, which is not entirely settled. Similarly, gravity is a fact, while the theory of gravity is still being debated.)

A more contentious issue is, of course, the received opinion that there is a god (or some kind of spiritual world) that can act upon the physical world. The existence of a god surely has the authority of being a majority view, but of course is not demonstrable by the evidence of the senses, directly or indirectly.

This brings up the retort often phrased as, “the lack of evidence is not evidence of a lack”. This is a false rebuttal. If you tell me that elephants roam my neighborhood at night, unseen by anyone, I can state validly that a lack of footprints, droppings, damaged plants, and so on, is proof of a lack. If you object to this statement, another way to look at it is that the lack of evidence makes the statement “elephants roam my neighborhood” meaningless.

In the political arena, we have many examples from which to choose. One is the received opinion that President Obama is a liberal (or even a socialist!), while the evidence of his own actions demonstrates that he is actually quite conservative. Another received opinion is that the United States is a democracy of some kind. Other than voting, which is sometimes permitted in dictatorships as well, there is no evidence for any but very local and rare instances of democracy.

One of my favorite examples, perhaps a bit esoteric, is the received opinion that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author of the works of “Shakespeare”. The fact is, there is no evidence linking him to authorship of any kind, nor any evidence that he was even literate, except for a few scrawled signatures. Since this is an unfamiliar idea that shocks most people, let me expand a little.

The evidence directly linked to Shakespeare of Stratford consists of: (a) one letter from a neighbor, (b) his will, (c) six dozen court and church records, and (d) a monument. The letter, never sent, is written to Shakespeare as a businessman, and asks him for money. The will, written by a clerk, lists property and how it is to be distributed. Nowhere is there mention of manuscripts, royalties, writing implements, or books, all of which would have been quite valuable, and are expected of a writer of any kind. The court records are about his christening, license to marry, business deals, law suits by or against him, and various minor matters; nothing indicating authorship, either directly or indirectly. The monument is apparently due to his being the wealthiest businessman in town. Think about it: no manuscripts, no notes by relatives, friends, or neighbors, no school records, no news items, no correspondence, no receipts, and no eulogies upon his death.

It can be difficult to shake off the error of unsubstantiated received opinion, but failure to do so can have negative consequences, as these few examples show:

  • Creationism hides the true wonders of the world, does nothing to advance medicine or agriculture, let alone the biological and earth sciences in general, and misleads people about their place in the world.
  • A belief in a god or a spiritual world gives people false hopes and false fears, makes people misdirect their efforts (and money), and generally makes them defer to imaginary or imagined authorities.
  • A belief that Obama is a liberal or that the United States is a democracy gives some people false hopes, allows others enormous unquestioned power, and certainly impedes justice, egalitarianism, and social cohesion.
  • Belief that the Stratford businessman was a great author not only keeps us from finding and celebrating the right person, but it bars us from finding and appreciating the sources and true meanings of the works of Shakespeare.
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