Let us preface with this that yes, I’m aware that you have every right to your opinion. However, your opinion probably doesn’t matter, even when you think it does. In a vaccine debate, for instance, your opinion does not really matter. It doesn’t matter if you believe that vaccines cause birth defects or if you think vaccines are the best thing to ever happen to medical science. What does matter is the objective truths that vaccines do prevent a host of illnesses that could have eradicated our species. Whether or not you can appreciate that is entirely up to you and your desire to accept reality.
Opinions can be useful. They are expressions of our preferences. Our preferences are rooted in not only our experiences, but our ability to perceive and interpret the world around us. My opinion is that pears are awful. Because I don’t like the taste. But my opinion about pears doesn’t have authoritative power. Our opinions are also expressions of beliefs. Opinions may or may not line up with facts. It is great when they do, though, because then we can be in agreement that vaccines are ethically good. When it comes to matters of policy, opinions are not useful. Reason and rationality are useful because we evaluate what is good for people, not just what makes them comfortable. Sometimes doing what is best feels bad or takes us through a difficult series of actions. What is right isn’t always what feels good. What is true certainly doesn’t always feel so great, either.
Case in point: anti-vaxxers. These well-intentioned parents believe that they know more about human health and social well-being than a wide variety of scientific areas. Decades upon decades of research has been devoted to vaccination safety and efficacy. Millions of dollars have been spent worldwide to evaluate the safety of vaccinations. But, anti-vaxxers hold the belief that their opinion matters more than scientific fact.
The case of the anti-vaxxers is only one symptom the underlying problem of anti-intellectualism. This is a conscious and subconscious current in our social fabric that undermines the usefulness of rationality and reason. Giving massive authority to opinions is one of the roots of anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism effectively is the practice of giving more authority to someone’s beliefs or opinions rather than facts and reality.
Anti-intellectualism is encouraged in a number of ways. On the one hand, we have an overwhelming access to information now. we have the misconception that having access to information means you now have the ability to use that information appropriately. Basically, we think that having access to all the information is better for us as a whole society. This is a greatly unintended consequence of the democratisation of information. While more commonly referred to as the democratisation of knowledge, the term is a misnomer. Knowledge takes effort. Through the invention of the printing press and the Internet, information is no longer bound to only those who can monetarily afford it. Information access is not the same as knowledge. Unfortunately for equality, knowledge is intrinsically hierarchical. One must have the ability to understand, reason, decipher, read, count, think, et cetera, in order to interpret information in an effective manner. You can have a feeling about a topic all you want, but until you learn about that topic, your knowledge of it is just that of exposure to the subject. Just because you have a calculus book does not mean that you know calculus. Even if you flipped through the book to find a few definitions does not mean you understand the formulas and theorems and how they can be applied.
This unintended consequence is paired with the cultural phenomenon that our beliefs matter more than facts. I’m referring specifically to the USA, here. We have many ideas about education in this country, about public versus private schools, about testing and liberal arts in classrooms. But at the end of the day, we have the same education problem we’ve always had, and that is the right of teachers to educate or parents to educate. Teachers and parents have failed to work in tandem to increase the actual skilled knowledge base of our society. Teachers have demands from the government and the parents. Parents want their children to learn, but they want to pick and choose that knowledge. There exists a myriad of reasons why parents will not relinquish the education of their children to others. This has spawned the developing movement of homeschooling. Unfortunately, our parents are not generally equipped to teacher their own children basic reasoning and logic. An extreme example is evolution science and creationism in classrooms. Rather than be taught to reason through science, many parents find it more appropriate to pull their children from discussions on evolution if it is not taught alongside creationism or intelligent design. They argue that children should be allowed to evaluate all these theories themselves. Children don’t know how to do that yet. It takes time to understand these theories and beliefs. Most adults can not weigh the argument and evidence from any of these realms appropriately to come up with a reasonable answer. Because they were taught that belief matters more than knowledge.
And here is our problem. We, as a society, have decided that our beliefs have more value, are more reliable, than objective truths. We reinforce this every single day, from school age and onward into adulthood. We bully those who pursue knowledge, we mock them and shame them for their efforts from childhood onward. And then we flaunt our anti-intellectualism with the idea that our opinions matter more than the knowledge we acquire.
You may accept the dissonance that you hold when you know your opinion to not be consistent with facts. When you do, you should either re-evaluate your opinion or give up pushing for authoritative power of your opinion. You’re allowed to develop your opinion over time. You can revise it when you learn new information that informs the subject matter of it. But you can’t push your opinions onto other people. Not unless you’re a validated expert. The expert is a discussion for another time.
We have some irony in the quest for strategic knowledge. We bully the pursuit of knowledge, then we flaunt our ability to cling to poorly informed beliefs.