Pet Peeves

A pet peeve of mine is when people conflate opinion with fact. For instance, can I have an opinion on whether the explosives in Iraq disappeared before or after fighting began? No. The explosives were either there or they weren't. I can present evidence why one of them is the case, but I can't have an opinion on it. Now, can I have an opinion on whether Bush is a good president? Yes. This seems to be a question that is a matter of opinion.

I absolutely hate when people write editorials about facts, essentially making an assertion that something unknown is or is not the case, and then retreats from the duty of rigorously defending their case under the auspices of it just being their opinion. You know this kind of maneuver. Don't get me wrong. There isn't anything wrong with including facts for the purpose of supporting your opinion, or making an entire editorial a list of facts if that's what you want to do, but you can't opine on a fact. At this point, my relationship with editorials, specifically the kind you find written in major newspapers, is like the relationship you have with a bad soap opera series. You don't have any respect for the content, but you keep coming back week after week out of some sick fascination with the fact that they just keep going.

Msnbc doesn't seem to share my opinion (pop quiz: is it proper to call this an opinion?) about opinions and hence proliferates fundamentally flawed onlines polls asking things like "Will the Iraq elections take place in January?" What!? What's the point of doing a survey on that? Does anyone know what will happen in January? Does anyone have any useful information that could lead to a useful prediction?

I would classify this as soliciting an opinion in the place of what is, in fact, a fact. Philosophically speaking, whether elections will take place in January is a fact, although it could be categorized in the proper sense as a "future fact" that is not presently evident. (I believe you can categorize it this way without assuming any kind of determinism.) But what the survey is asking for, I would argue, is an opinion, because:

1) No one knows what will happen at a future date. The best anyone can do is to make sound factually-based predictions. Unless you are operating under the assumption of a very strong determinism, which would say that it is possible to know what is going to happen in the future by surveying conditions at a given point in time, it cannot be said that a prediction of any future event is "a fact."

2) Even if strong determinism were assumed, respondents to online polls are absolutely ignorant of anything factually relevant to the issue being polled. Therefore, even if there were factual basis for a certain answer, people's answers are not likely to reflect it.

Thus these online polls are guilty of opining on facts, which to me is a capital intellectual sin. This is eclipsed only by my second pet peeve: people posting academic work (or college entrance essays (!?)) on their personal websites. It might be entertaining to come up with other equally irrelevant poll questions; I'll leave that as an intellectual exercise to the reader.

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