‘In my opinion’ is an inadequate argument

Greg Moffatt's picture

I read a letter to the editor in a popular magazine recently. The writer was responding to an article the magazine had published on processed foods. In one sentence, the writer demonstrated some of what I fear is wrong with the way we think in our culture. “In my opinion,” she started, “food companies put chemicals in the food to get us addicted...” “In my opinion”?

Whether it is religion, politics, education, or daily living, I too often hear arguments begin this way. Of course there is nothing wrong with an opinion. People are entitled to think whatever they want. The problem is when people are under the impression that an opinion is equal to fact. 

On what did this woman base her opinion? The article on processed food could have presented the wrong conclusion, but it was heavily referenced with fact. While it is possible the woman’s letter had been edited and the basis of her argument was removed, I doubt it. The woman may be correct in her assumptions, but to tenaciously hold to a position just because you think is a fertile garden for ignorance.

I see this in college students almost every day and it even shows up in their “research” papers. “I think the author’s point was off base,” I read with some regularity.

My thoughts at that point are, “Yes? Based on what?”

When pushed, the student often retorts, “I just know!” The student might be right, but thinking it is only the beginning of the argument, not the conclusion. What if I “just know” something different?

The assumption is “I believe it,” or even worse, “I believe it strongly!” – therefore, it must be true. Facts appear to be irrelevant. As I said, the writer of the letter to the editor may have been right in her position. But even if she was, anyone who knows anything about rhetoric or the scientific method would immediately reject it because she provided no basis for the argument. In this case, a new truth might be lost because of a weak argument.

And what if the writer is wrong? There is no chance of approaching the truth with a mindset that is so rigid that just thinking it is all you need to sleep well at night.

This logic matters because we vote on our beliefs. We make social policy based on our understanding of reality and we structure our religious views based on our ideas of what is and is not so. We select our spouses based on what we “believe.” If these beliefs are based on nothing more than “I think it,” we are in deep trouble.

“Believing” by itself is little more than emotion. 

Emotions are not irrelevant. There is certainly a place for passionate persuasion. In social psychology there are two separate “routes to persuasion.” One, called the central route, is fact based. This, by itself, may be solid, but it can be rather boring.

Remember Ross Perot when he ran for president in the 1990s? He littered his commercials with pie charts and data. While his data were accurate, his approach was devoid of passion and his campaign was doomed.

On the other hand, the second route is called the “peripheral route” and is based largely on affect. Remember Barack Obama’s first campaign? “Yes we can!” and “Change!” These statements, as effective as they were, were devoid of any substance. They didn’t say anything. Transitioning from living to dead is “change.”

(Before my in-box is littered with hate mail, I’m not saying anything about the competence of either man for the office – only describing their rhetorical approaches.)

Passion matters, but so do facts. It is passion that makes good central route arguments even stronger. Read the timeless words of the Gettysburg Address and try to imagine the data (“four score and seven years ago ...”) without emotion, yet Lincoln interlaces fact among hope and passion.

We do our children a favor when we encourage them to use both facts and passion in expressing their views. It is easy in a culture that so heavily emphasizes equality for all arguments to be seen as the same. They are not.

If we are going to form laws, set public policy, elect world leaders, or sell products to consumers, learning how to persuade is critical. In order to do so, we need to learn to think beyond our emotions and form an argument.

[Dr. Greg Moffatt, a regular columnist for the Healthwise section of this newspaper, is also a college professor, a licensed counselor and a public speaker. He has served as a regular lecturer at the FBI Academy, as a profiler with the Atlanta Cold Case Squad and is also author of “Survivors: What We Can Learn From How They Cope With Horrific Tragedy.”]