Sunday, June 10, 2007

On Opinions and Criticism

I recently had a conversation with a friend where he stated that people shouldn't criticize the musical tastes of others because music was a very personal choice. In other words, because I might hurt someone's feelings if I said that I thought their taste in music sucked.

Since I'm going to be putting some fairly controversial opinions on this blog, and I'd rather it did not devolve into the flaming and name-calling so prevelant on the web, I thought I'd start out with a statement of what I consider to be opinion versus criticism, and what that means to the reader. Assuming you're crazy enough to read what I write. Because I'm not going to worry about hurting anyone's feelings, at least not in the general sense.

Opinion, to start with, is simply how I (or anyone) view the world. The world is a very large place, and none of us are capable of understanding all of it, much less the universe. Because we live in an age of virtually instantaneous information retrieval, we forget that our knowledge is only as good as the quality of information we gather. A simple hour of watching Fox News or listening to Air America shows us that just because someone says something is true does not make it so - both media outlets are specifically geared to present propaganda in an ongoing political "debate" (I use the term loosely) where whoever shouts the loudest gets to claim they are correct. As such, much of what all of us say during the day tends to fall in the "opinion" camp rather than the "fact" camp, because it is something that we have no immediate experience of.

Criticism, on the other hand, is what we use to test the validity of opinion. Strangely, criticism itself often does not require us to have any more immediate knowledge of a given subject than opinion does, as simple logic can often demolish an opinion without resorting to actual fact. A good critique, however, usually requires some knowledge of the subject in question, although after my brief foray into academia I can tell you unreservedly that lengthy study on a subject and an open mind are frequently in conflict, depending on the subject. Orthodoxy is alive and well at the university level in almost every subject.

While we're at it, I'll also define what science is and why I put my "faith" in it rather than, well, faith. The scientific method is simply that to demonstrate that a thing is true, it must be measurable and repeatable. This does not mean that science is not hijacked on a regular basis - there's money in them there grants, and the tobacco industry has repeatedly shown how to twist statistics to its benefit. A poorly-defined and controlled experiment is less than useless, as it can be used to bolster an erroneous conclusion. An excellent example would be an experiment where people prayed for a specific person to recover from an illness. The person may or may not recover, but unless a causal link can be proved between the prayer and the result, we cannot draw any conclusions from this experiment other than to smack the person who came up with it over the head and explain how the scientific method works - again.

But back to criticism. Criticism has a negative connotation, but it really shouldn't. Saying someone's music sucks, for example, is not criticism, it is bashing. Saying that the music someone is listening to is overproduced or poorly arranged or an amateurish composition, and then stating specifically *why,* that is criticism. It is using critical thinking to make judgements about any aspect of our lives, but the key word here is "thinking". What I will endeavor to do in this blog is to apply critical thinking to a variety of topics to support my opinions or to support or refute another opinion.

I mentioned the debate over evolution vs creationism (or intelligent design, or whatever phrase is currently being used this year), and it's an excellent example of how criticism demonstrates that not all sides of an argument (and there are usually far more than two) are valid. This is not to say that we are *not* created beings, only to say that the current arguments presented by those who hold to that belief fail to meet basic standards for critical thinking.

First off, evolution is a demonstrable phenomenon. You can watch it happen in a Petri dish over time. It also has the wonderful quality of satisfying Occam's Razor, where the simplest answer is usually the correct one. No need for some larger force to come along and design everything, we can see that every organism on the planet is subject to external natural forces that will support or endanger a given set of genetic abilities. With what we know about DNA, and how closely we are related to bonobos and chimps, it is increasingly more difficult for people to claim that their ancestors didn't swing from trees. Like it matters. It has nothing to do with whether we have souls, it has everything to do with the fact that we are linked to the rest of life on this planet (silicon-based organisms notwithstanding).

The other side of the coin, creationism, has two big problems. First is that we have an imperfect "chain" of evolutionary changes in the fossil record, so therefore creationists claim that it must be wrong. The logic here is so wrong as to defy argument, and any logic class will show in the first week that (not A) does not prove B without a whole lot of other evidence. Second is that much of the motivation for denying evolution is to put humankind on a pedestal above the rest of the planet. We got souls, so we can pretty much do what we want with the world, including killing animals for sport, torturing other people because they *might* have information of dubious use, or justifying widespread pollution in the name of profit. Ironically, many of the same people who deny the concept of evolution are the same ones who act as an agent of same. The Europeans who killed off the Passenger Pidgeons certainly thought of themselves as the "owners" of those animals.

The argument has become so ridiculous that there are people who are completely serious when they say that humans at one time domesticated dinosaurs, despite the fact that there is absolutely no evidence to support this idea other than in their own tortured brains. Zero. But there are certainly dinosaur fossils, and the whole "the world was created old" theory is finally giving out, so since humans have been around for all 6000 years the planet's been here, certainly the dinosaurs must have been an important part of their lives. Help.

Let me be clear here. I am not saying there is no God. I am, along with the rest of the planet, not qualified to make that assumption, although in my personal experience I certainly have never encountered anything that suggests there is a God that many Christians believe in. Again, I cannot say there is no God, because I have no evidence to disprove there is a God, much as Christians must resort to faith. There is certainly an obvious need for faith in the human psyche, but there's not enough evidence to throw the decision either way, and I'm not going to fall into the trap of thinking that because we don't have a yardstick that can measure God that therefore there is no God.

What I am saying is that we have two sides of an argument where one side is resorting to wishful thinking in order to prop up a historical belief in order to justify a particular theology. While it is true that we are still learning quite a bit about the concept of evolution, and I'm not convinced we have it all down just yet, the truth is that evolution must follow the dictates of the scientific method for it's justification, while creationism can claim anything it wants to and say it's because God says so.

As I post my opinions and criticisms over time, this simple point is worth remembering. If I can't have a conversation about what I like or don't like about my friend's music, we lose every ounce of our ability to reason and make the critical judgements that must be made on a daily basis. Because everything is *not* created equal; on the contrary, everything is created with flaws, and the more complex something is the more prevalent those flaws are likely to be.

At the same time, and I have to stress this above all, we must have the ability to open our minds up enough to at least consider the possibility of a given musical style, a worldview, whether little Jimmy really *didn't* break the cookie jar. It is only after we consider the possibilities that we can then step back and make the critical judgements necessary to decide whether an idea has merit.

Finally, a simple test. Do you think you've gotten a good idea of what my politics, faith and social beliefs are from just this one entry? If you do, you fail. I do not adhere to any specific line of thought, whether it's political, theological, or social. I look at the world on a case-by-case basis, then make my decision based on my experience and what knowledge I can bring to bear on the topic. I'm registered as an Independent, for example, as I'm in disagreement with many of the principals of both political parties in the US (we could use about 20 years of a multi-party system, even if it meant we include the lunatic fringe).

As such, if and when you respond to my opinion, you'll want to keep this in mind as I won't tolerate willful ignorance. We've got enough of that in the Executive Branch. I *want* you to argue with me, I want to be kept honest, and if I'm wrong about something I'd like to get the chance to correct my thinking. But don't think that telling me that something is part of God's plan (or similar) will get any more attention than it deserves. Believe me, we don't have the vaguest idea what God's plan is, no matter how often you read the Bible.

Thanks for your time, and I'll look forward to your comments.

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