“That’s just my opinion” is something we have all heard and said before. But when is saying this actually warranted and when should something be a statement because it is a fact, or a statement based on the best evidence? If we say, for example, “You shouldn’t drive in the rain with bald tires; it’s dangerous. That’s just my opinion” is this really just my opinion or is this actually a statement of truth? I am inclined to think it’s the latter. This is not, in my opinion, an opinion. We know, because of science, physics and statistical evidence, that bald tires make it harder to stop on time and easier to understeer/oversteer your vehicle and that these dangers are amplified during wet weather. So this is not merely an opinion. How about if someone says, “You shouldn’t walk in the rain, it’s not fun. That’s just my opinion”? This is an opinion. Anyone who has ever enjoyed walking in the rain or enjoyed being in the rain at all invalidates this being a statement based on fact. It is an opinion because the person saying it is sharing a personal preference. They are not stating anything based on any evidence outside of their own subjective dislikes. But many people share statements of fact as though it is their opinion, and likewise share opinions as though they are facts.
An opinion based on personal preferences is an unjustified belief that is often based on a fact but does not yet have any evidence for what we should do with that fact. For example, it is a fact that black men in America committed 52% of homicides between 1980 and 2008. Black men only make up 6.1% of the population and young black men are the majority of the victims of these homicides. This is just a fact and it holds no inherent judgements or values in itself and any idea of if or what should be done with it will be an opinion. It will also be an opinion that is heavily influenced by personal, racial, political and religious beliefs. A fact can mean different things to different people and in some matters like the one just mentioned the outcome of learning a fact might differ quite a lot. Facts like this are quite problematic because the amount of evidence needed to justify any action is substantial and is almost always going to divide people. Even if there was more than enough evidence to justify an action many people’s biases and current beliefs would prevent them from being able to see that evidence. This type of fact should reserve any public speculation about “action” or “solution” until there has been much research, or perhaps indefinitely if you live in a country where opinions on such topics are likely to risk your career or safety.
What about when the fact and what we should do with it are both determined? This is when a fact should not be spoken about as though it is an opinion. For example, knowing that penicillin cures some bacterial infections is a fact. And if we have a bacterial infection that can be cured by penicillin, and we value our health and wellbeing, then we should take penicillin if we can. It is not an opinion whether we should take penicillin if we need our infection cured. We have sufficient evidence to support this action making this a justified belief.
Another example is from the political spectrum calculator. Recently I participated in this and found that some of the questions that asked for an opinion shouldn’t have needed an opinion because the statements themselves could have been considered a fact. For example, I was asked if I agree or disagree with this statement:
“A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system”
If you lived in a country where the political party that received the majority vote takes full control then of course there will be less delays. How can this statement be disagreed with? One might disagree that a single party system is fully democratic. One cannot disagree that it would have less delays because there is no other parties to share opposing ideas or provide counter examples to be taken into consideration before taking action. One might also disagree with what “progress” actually means. But if the single elected party is taking unopposed action toward the parties collective goals then this is progress to the party, and having no opposition will reduce delays.
Facts by themselves should have little meaning or impact on our actions unless we have well thought out reasons for why we should do X based on any specific fact. Thinking we should do something because we personally prefer it is an opinion. And most of us justify our opinions by feeling alone or have no idea why we actually hold an opinion. It is my opinion that we should strive to justify our actions and beliefs with evidence and by using our capacity to find good reasons.