Choices, choices

January 15, 2016 – All too often when I find myself in a debate about something science based where the other party holds a strongly opposing view that is not based on good science, a stalemate is reached where my opponent flings out that most hated retort “I have a right to my opinion! You have to respect that!”

No, I don’t.

Opinion: statement of belief or feeling. It shows one’s feelings about a subject. Solid opinions, while based on facts, are someone’s views on a subject and not facts themselves. Opinion is the lowest form of human knowledge. Opinion and belief ‘can’ be based on facts, but often, frequently, they are not. Opinion and belief require no accountability, no understanding. Opinions and beliefs that are not based on fact are simply ignorance and I, in no way, have to respect ignorance, particularly if it is willful ignorance. A statement of opinion is one whose content is either subjective or else not well supported by the available evidence. Chocolate is better than vanilla – that’s an opinion.

Fact: statement of actuality or occurrence. A fact is based on direct evidence, actual experience, or observation. A fact is verifiable. We can determine whether it is true by researching the evidence. This may involve numbers, dates, testimony, etc. (Ex.: “World War II ended in 1945.”) The truth of the fact is beyond argument if one can assume that measuring devices or records or memories are correct. Facts provide crucial support for the assertion of an argument. However, facts by themselves are worthless unless we put them in context, draw conclusions, and, thus, give them meaning. A statement of fact is one that has objective content and is well-supported by the available evidence. Chocolate and vanilla are two of the most widely available flavours of ice cream in North America – that’s a fact.

I think perhaps many people reject facts in favour of opinion because they are uncomfortable with the facts. Accepting facts can mean making a change to a habit, giving up something one likes, admitting that one is wrong about something. All of those are unpleasant options and, as a result, far too often people reject facts in favour of what they ‘want’ to believe to be true. Opinions can be highly illogical and, in a way, they are blind to logic. A person with a strong opinion is often incapable of seeing the full truth, but at the same time he or she will feel very strongly, and feel nothing but absolute conviction with his or her own opinion.

An informed opinion is one based on evidence, proof, facts, things one finds in peer reviewed, up to date, quality, scientific literature. Opinions that are not based on such facts commonly leads to a series of bad decisions, decisions where the outcomes have not been fully evaluated.

If you tell me that you have a right to your opinion, you must accept that I have the right to tell you that your opinion is wrong, dangerous, selfish, socially irresponsible, and has absolutely no value to anyone other than yourself and other similarly misinformed individuals. The difference is that when I make my statement, I (hopefully) do so in a justified, evidence based manner, armed with irrefutable facts. If I am unsure of my facts, I will openly admit my ignorance on a topic and weigh all the information in a logical manner, doing my very best to keep my cognitive biases at bay or recognizing when they are creeping in; I wish for nothing more than others to do the same.

If however, your statement is simply based on your own emotions and the fact that you have encountered others who share your unsupported convictions, then I do not have to respect it at all. Emotional convictions are feeling based, not evidence based. I can prove my statement to be true insomuch as the balance of peer-reviewed literature supports it. One contrary paper does not negate decades of research, but it can bring focus on old questions and seek to determine if new methodology or findings justify new conclusions or further investigations.

Yes, science can be slow, but beliefs don’t change facts. If you are a reasonable person, then facts should change your beliefs, not the other way around.

Questions lead to investigations and observations. Repeated and repeatable observations lead to conclusions and new questions. That’s science.

Conclusions based on nothing more than belief? That’s basically religion.

I suppose it is fair to argue that you are entitled to your opinions, even if they are not supported by evidence, but the moment you spread those opinions as facts, you have entered the realm of being a liar. And if you spread your opinions and actually call them facts, knowing that no evidence supports your opinion, then you are both a liar and a fraud.

Evidence must be objective, empirically verifiable, and falsifiable (at least in theory). Gut feeling is not evidence.

Why should anyone care about the opinions of others? Because it can be dangerous to let belief go unchallenged. And that’s why I reserve the right to judge those options, harshly if they are clearly disproven by scientific methodology.

Let’s pick a topic near and dear to me, human vaccination.

I have had this disagreement on several occasions, with different people. It usually involves some form of opinion based on false information, debunked information, or just plain old poor logic.

One disagreement recently involved me being told that people should have a right to choose to not vaccinate their children, that is was their choice to refuse vaccination based on their own opinion, and that their opinion should be respected. In a nutshell I was told that no one should have the right to judge them for their decision. I countered with an agreement that one ‘could’ choose to not vaccinate their child, but that they ‘should’ then not have a right to have their child go to school, play in the playgrounds, go to movies, or engage in any other activity that ever took that child in contact with other people or their children. Maybe they ‘should’ have to wear some sort of an indication that they were unvaccinated so that others would have the ability to choose to associate with them, or ostracise them. I received vehement disagreement in return.

Vaccination works, it really isn’t a personal choice, and it’s irresponsible to not vaccinate ( After an hour of presenting all sorts of irrefutable facts on the topic, my knowledge of science was quite literally blown off as being less important than personal opinion and the right to act on it without repercussion.

I passionately oppose this view.

I remember asking my biology students if they’d had their flu shot and many of them said ‘no, I’m young and healthy, I don’t think I need it’. That’s exactly the sort of ignorance that is deadly to some people, often not the ones who chose to not be immunized. Getting vaccinated against a disease isn’t really about you at all, it’s about the rest of the population, it’s about reducing transmission and protecting the greater population.

Vaccines became highly controversial when a researcher (Andrew Wakefield) falsified data and published it, and a crack-pot celebrity (Jenny McCarthy) glommed onto it claiming that his false research proved that vaccines were responsible for her child’s illness. And suddenly everyone afraid of things they didn’t understand had an equally stupid champion; the anti-vaxxer movement was born.

The argument that mandatory vaccinations violate individual rights to medical decisions and religious principles. has reduced vaccination rates in certain communities, resulting in outbreaks and deaths from preventable childhood diseases. Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that vaccines prevent suffering and death from infectious diseases that outweighs any adverse effects. However, vaccination programs depend on public confidence to be effective. Safety concerns usually have a relatively predictable pattern: a potential adverse effect is hypothesized; a premature announcement is made; the initial study is not reproduced; and finally, it takes several years for the vaccine to regain public confidence.

Such public reaction has contributed to a significant increase in preventable diseases such as measles. In 2011 Andrew Wakefield’s vaccine-autism connection and its promotion by the likes of Jenny McCarthy, was described as “the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years”.

But ignorant people still believe a celebrity over the wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary, they think it is all a conspiracy theory. They argue that since vaccines aren’t 100% effective that they aren’t worthwhile. That’s about as intellectual as saying that since some people are allergic to grapefruits no one should consume fruit because it’s potentially deadly. It’s a weak and incredibly stupid argument that is more harmful than beneficial.

Find me anything that is 100% effective in 100% of the population, for Pete’s sake, nothing is.

But when anti-vaxxers get credibility, and when they are actually able to influence policy, vaccination rates drop. That leads to diseases, especially highly infectious diseases like measles and mumps and rubella, becoming resurgent. When those diseases resurge we see real children sicken and die; it’s not a hypothetical situation, it’s happening.

You can make a personal choice to drive while drunk, but it’s illegal because it poses risk of death to other human life. Where human actions have a high probability of posing a fatal risk to others, and where those risks are easily and safely preventable, then I think we, as humans, have a moral and ethical obligation to make those preventative measures mandatory. You should not have a right to pose a potentially lethal risk to me or my children (assuming I had any). We are outraged if non-threatening things like GMO foods aren’t labelled so we can make a choice, so why don’t I have a choice to ensure that everyone I love doesn’t come into contact with you or your children if you or they aren’t vaccinated? Why should you have the right to send a silent carrier to play with children who might be immunocompromised and at high risk of picking up whatever preventable disease your child may harbour? The only exception I can find to this would be a person who, for other heath reasons such as a known underlying condition, are known to not be capable of tolerating immunization with certain antigens.

And that’s why herd immunity is so damned important. If we can maintain a vaccination rate in excess of 85-95% of the population, the risk to those very few people who cannot be immunized drops to an extremely low level.

A paradox of the success of vaccines in preventing disease is that certain diseases start to fade from memory owing to their significant reduction, and that provides a platform for a belief that the vaccines are no longer necessary, that we’ve ‘beaten’ the disease.

In a recent discussion, the person I was debating with mistakenly believed that we’d beaten the diseases that we were still vaccinating against, and that continuing to vaccinate is the reason that cancer rates have soared. Aside from being gobsmacked that someone made such an inaccurate connection, I feel that this proves the point above – people are ignorant of what they have never personally experienced or researched. I countered by indicating that the only human disease we’ve ever successfully eradicated is smallpox and the reply I received was that ‘people still get smallpox’. Again, gobsmacked by the fact hat people might actually believe this and don’t know the history of the only disease we have successfully eradicated from the human population, and the massive effort that it took to do so. Although smallpox does exist in a couple of research freezers, it has not existed in any human population since 1977, when the last naturally occurring case was seen in a small village in Somalia. (I know this as fact since I did the research during my Master’s thesis, which was on vaccines in fish.) Making such inaccurate statements indicates a lack of effort to truly know what one is arguing about. It’s dangerous to spread such false information because people don’t think with their brains as often as they should, people might (and obviously do) believe it.

Getting back to that paradox; people will oppose vaccination because they (incorrectly) believe that we have beaten the associated diseases, because it has been so long since an outbreak has occurred, and therefore conclude (wrongly) that it is unnecessary or dangerous to continue to immunize children against them. Eventually, opposition will lead to a reduction in vaccination rates because more people will buy in, and new outbreaks will occur. This is already starting. Mumps has been seen to be on the rise with outbreaks recently as close as Whistler and the Fraser Valley. Measles is on the rise around the world. Eventually the death toll will increase and the outbreaks will (hopefully) terrify people. In theory, that should lead to new support for vaccination, but it comes at the cost of sick children and potentially dead children.

It’s an unnecessary cost. It’s a socially irresponsible and unethical cost. But it’s a cost that will be paid because people are willing to risk the people around themselves in their selfish ignorance. Because they think they ‘know better’ than medical experts.

That’s just one example of how ‘opinion’ over science can be devastating and why I have little regard for your ‘opinion’ unless it is founded on defensible facts and evidence.

Consider these simple questions:

Is the earth flat or round?

I’m going to assume you said round, but how do you know? Have you ever been to outer space to see it yourself? Have you actually seen the earth from afar? Then why do you believe it is true? You’ve seen pictures, but how do you know they are real?

Does the moon orbit the earth, or does the earth orbit the moon?

I’m going to assume that you said the moon orbits the earth. But how do you know? Have you seen it? Have you calculated it yourself? Why do you believe the astrophysicists? Your teachers in school told you it was true, and they showed you models, but that’s science and if you haven’t seen it for yourself, why do you believe it to be true?

And if you believe those bits of accepted science, why do you reject others?

We humans have so much difficulty facing truth and so, to avoid uncomfortable truths, we soften language (George Carlin – Soft Language) and we avoid topics that make us uncomfortable. We turn to religion because it is based on answers that cannot be questioned. We turn to the internet because we can find others who share our opinions and therefore validate our personal convictions. We turn to life coaches to make us feel better about our choices and allow us to feel better about being self absorbed. We cherry-pick the available literature and focus only on the papers that support our already biased views. And all of those things help us feel sanctimonious in our rejection of expert opinion, because ‘why should I believe that other person knows better about some topic than I do when all I have to do is use Google to find the information myself?’

Because you haven’t been trained to critically evaluate the literature, or to recognize the flaws and biases that may exist in some studies, the way the experts have been.

We openly laugh at Trump tweeting that he knows more about hacking than the US Intelligence Services does.

But isn’t that exactly the same thing as the person who thinks that they know more about their body than a medical doctor? The doctor needs all the information and we are terrible at neglecting to provide all the details that might be necessary, so it’s not always the doctor’s fault if they don’t get the diagnosis right in the first shot. Science is about trial and error and collecting information to make the best possible decision given the information at hand. Doctors may not know everything, but they sure as hell know more than you probably do about human physiology, endocrinology, immunology, etc.

Isn’t that exactly the same as rejecting vaccination as a preventative measure for a child because you think you know more about immunology and your own immune system better than 220 years of peer reviewed scientific literature possibly can? How many of you really know all the organs, tissues, cells, and molecules involved in the incredibly complex system known as our immune system, let alone how they all interact and under what circumstances? Not many I’ll bet. So why do you feel justified in ignoring the science? You simply do not know better than the world’s body of scientists.

When we treat feelings as facts, we use those feelings to selectively look for facts to back us up. Tune into almost any political talk-radio show and you will find masters of the technique of cherry-picking facts to support a predetermined outcome. In a decades-old experiment, ROTC cadets and peace activists were given the same report on nuclear missile testing mishaps and were then asked if our nuclear arsenal was safer or more dangerous than they previously thought. Interestingly, the cadets became more confident of our nuclear safeguards and the peace activists became less confident. They all read the same report, but their feelings led them to focus on the facts they wanted to find.

Worse yet, sometimes our feelings-based opinions make us unwilling to even bother to gather facts. For years, US federal legislators banned research by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on the causes and effects of gun violence. After the Newtown school shootings, the president requested funding to end this ban. Congress turned him down. Without adequate research, which needs funding, we are left with only competing feelings to guide the debate on gun violence. Feelings and opinions overruled research, probably over fear of findings that would potentially lead to change, and change is bad.

The evolution of our brain bears some of the responsibility for our inability to separate emotion and reason. On an evolutionary timeline, the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions, evolved first. Emotion and instinct are tied together inextricably and both were vital for reaction to danger. Reason, and its application to emotion, lies in a more recent part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. As a result of this evolution, our first reaction is often an emotional one, followed rather than preceded by reason and rational processing. The implication for everyday thinking is that we often make decisions based on that initial feeling and then use our reason to rationalize the decisions our emotions have already arrived at. Feelings call forth the facts they need, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, when we treat feelings as facts, or give them the same weight, we are prone to treat those who see the world differently as stupid, mean-spirited, or the enemy. When someone disagrees with us, they threaten our sense of self and we perceive that as a personal slight, and neuroscientists have demonstrated that such perceived threats to our social status activate the same parts of the brain as does physical pain. In other words, when we think our status is being threatened, it hurts. When something hurts, we fight back.

Worse yet, feelings can predominate over facts as time goes on, we entrench in our convictions rather than seek to explore them rationally, making us more extreme and more certain in our views. When forming personal convictions, we often interpret factual evidence through the filter of our values, feelings, tastes, and past experiences. Hence, most statements we make in speaking and writing are assertions of fact, opinion, belief, or prejudice. Our society and our politics become more polarized, we ignore facts, and we forget that there are facts we ignore. We literally cannot see them.

If you want to put an end to positive communication, then speak only in emotion and opinion, and leave out the facts. The conversation will be one sided, and you will always be right. However, the conversation will not be very productive, at least not unless you are speaking with only those who share your opinion. Opinions are your truth. Your truth can be wrong to others, but not to yourself. (do you see the problematic logic there?) Only when we open our minds, and limit the use of emotion-based thinking, can a discussion about a polarized topic turn into actual communication.

Despite its unclear meaning, the claim “That’s just your opinion” has one effective use: It is a conversation-stopper. It’s a way of diminishing a claim, reducing it to a mere matter of taste which lies beyond dispute. (De gustibus non est disputandum: there’s no disputing taste.) In simpler terms, it’s basically a ‘fuck you’, I disagree and I’ve closed my mind to you and your facts, I refuse to listen to reality anymore because it’s making me uncomfortable. It’s a cowardly way out of a debate. If you feel the need to resort to opinion over fact then expect to be judged harshly, for you deserve to be.

Rather than descend into vicious arguments and generalized nastiness, we would be better served by focussing instead on whether people can offer good reasons for the claims they make – reasons that might compel us to share their views – and those with controversial views should also be willing and prepared to change their position if presented with strong evidence that refutes their arguments.

Instead of saying you’re wrong, maybe we should try asking why that person believes they are right and, more importantly, what their evidence is. Maybe, just maybe, they will hear their own irrationality and recognize the weak foundation their argument is based on.

I can dream.

But ultimately, no, in absolutely no way do I have to respect your opinion, not unless you can back it up with evidence; you can’t have your own set of facts.

Unless they happen to include vanilla being better than chocolate.