The Danger of Absolutes

I find a tendency in myself to think of opinions as “right” or “wrong.” I have noticed this same behavior among many people with whom I have interacted. While this mode of thinking certainly helps when making swift decisions on what to accept or believe, it is not a good approach to general deliberation. By setting powerful absolutes to our opinions, we cement their place in our minds and thus, our actions.

Consider advertisements that claim that something is “scientifically proven” or “laboratory tested.” Some toothpaste commercials claim that their product has been proven to make teeth “three shades brighter.” Antibacterial soaps and hand wash commercials often claim that they have been tested to “kill 99.99 percent of germs upon contact.” When hearing such statements, we may be moved to think that the products must really do what the advertisements claim, primarily because there is a belief that science is always right.

Given all that technology has done for civilization, it is difficult not to think of science as, at the very least, powerful. Technology allows us to talk to people on the other side of the world, create bionic limbs and recreate temperatures of the surface of the sun with modern weapons of mass destruction. On top of that, scientists, unlike priests or politicians, can almost always recreate their inventions with poignant accuracy. Modern creations of science and technology are awe-inspiring.

However, what most people forget or do not realize is that the objective of science is to describe the nature of the universe in all its complexities and endless details. Hypotheses lead to experimentation and observation leads to theories, but never proofs. Given the same parameters, experimental results are generally re-creatable; if they are not, it is usually a sign that the parameters of that particular experiment are not the same. Due to this and the built-in rigor of the scientific process, we usually have good reasons to trust most scientific data. However, there is no good reason to believe that a scientific theory must be true. Such modes of thinking are unscientific.

However, advertisements routinely take advantage of our trust in the scientific process to sell products. They take advantage of our belief that science is always right. This belief enables the advertisement’s propaganda.

Propaganda relies on very loud rhetoric and group thought. A propagandist’s goal is to appeal to the biases of some and get them to nod their heads. Others, who are less decided, will soon join simply because of the power of group thought. Group thought causes people to take up opinions simply because others have taken up those opinions as well.

There seems to be a tendency in people to view the opinion of groups to be either totally right or totally wrong. We tend to forget that groups do not have opinions; that groups cannot have opinions. Groups are simply a collection of people based on perhaps one or two similarities. Two people may do the same job and we can put them into a group because they do the same job, but they can have completely different political, social and religious preferences.

Members of each group can be completely dissimilar apart from those one or two similarities. Each member is equally liable to misjudgment. As such, our trust in the “opinions” of groups is generally without foundation. The only conclusion we can reach is that those opinions are widely held either because they are good, or—what seems to be usually the case—because those ideas are easy to swallow and are manipulative. Those opinions need as much evaluation as any other, if not more.

Given our strong biases, carefulness is not sufficient in preventing propaganda and stereotypes from affecting our thought process. Therefore, I suggest a protocol: avoid thinking of opinions as completely right or wrong, and instead, consciously view your opinions to be “the best you got at this moment.” When faced with a new opinion, test that opinion by assuming it to be true and play devil’s advocate against yourself.

This, firstly, prevents any permanent belief of the rightness of any opinion, and then forces an internal debate that may weed out irrational biases and prevent the near-automatic rejection of a foreign or seemingly-malicious idea. Thus, we become more malleable to reason and better able to relate to others. We become more open-minded while still maintaining a strong defense against actually malicious ideas.

So, the next time you come across an opinion that is against your own, I urge you try to defend that opinion and see how far you go. You might just end up with something valuable, and yet, priceless: understanding.