Disagreements and Differences of Opinion are Overrated

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

For those who are unaware, it’s election season. For those of us actively informed in the election process, this means looking at the policies and opinions that our current candidates hold, and comparing that to our own. For many of us, this also means discussing and arguing among our peers over which candidate we should vote for, causing us to re-evaluate our own positions based on what others say.

Skeptics, true to our nature, have a wide array of opinions this season. Elections and politics have a lot fuzzier evidence than the hard sciences and medical science, and all the major candidates (four, if you want to include the two that won’t get elected) engage in bullshit to some degree or another. To the skeptics, it’s a game in determining whose bullshit we are willing to support along with the rest of their platforms. Among the skeptics, the major opinions are to vote for Clinton (including votes to stave off authoritarian and potential existential-threat-in-chief Trump), voting third-party, or avoiding voting altogether to protest the entire shitshow that’s been going on.

If I wasn’t in a purple state, I’d be more inclined to vote for a candidate that certainly won’t win, but I’m not going to waste time thinking about that. My voting values include doing the least harm, so for now I will do all I can to prevent nine electoral votes from going to a man who uses abuse tactics as a campaign strategy and has a worrying relationship with the truth, and say that #imwithheriguess. I can’t say I’m not sympathetic to the third-party voters though. One person I respect a lot who will be doing so is Patheos blogger Dan Arel, who has stated that he is joining the Socialist Party USA, and will likely vote for them simply to help promote the ideals of the party and help them gain traction. He, like me, can respect the diversity of opinion of progressive voters, and I certainly can’t criticize him for contributing to a Trump presidency, as he lives in California.

However, in the linked blog post above (and elsewhere) he has stated that he won’t tell others how to vote. I’ve been meditating on this for a long time. Who this country elects as commander-in-chief has severe implications for the next four-to-eight years. Who a large number of other humans vote for can severely affect me. Why wouldn’t I want to tell others where I think their vote will be best placed? I wouldn’t force someone to vote a particular way, or even coerce them. However, I think it’s perfectly within reason that I should be able to petition people’s reason and compassion by telling them what I think. As autonomous human beings, they are more than welcome to consider what I say freely, try to refute what I say, or even refuse to engage as I am not entitled to have a conversation with anyone. Fortunately, I don’t really have any serious disagreement with Dan, this small difference between us is merely a convenient topical frame for a larger point that I want to discuss in a blog post.

As skeptics, we profess that we value diversity of opinion all the time, and that we enjoy having people around that disagree with us. But I often wonder how true that is. If a friend and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a matter of fact, then at least one of us is wrong. That has implications with the way that we lead our lives. If we see the world in a faulty manner, then we are more prone to behaving in ways that don’t align with the world surrounding us. If someone thinks that vaccines cause autism or that homeopathy works, that could easily lead to somebody wasting their money on a scam, getting sick, or even endangering the lives of those around them. In these examples, major harm can come of people simply because they don’t have an accurate view of the world, and sometimes this can affect completely innocent parties. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to make sure as many people as possible are informed on these facts.

For this reason, perhaps diversity of opinion is overrated.



[Image: two shots from the Marvel Studios film Captain America: Civil War. On the left, Steve Rogers (Captain America) shouts angrily at Tony Stark (Iron Man), who looks bewildered in the second frame]

What? Did you just hear that from a self-identifying skeptic?

Yes, there are trivial differences between humans such as what ice cream flavor is the best or who played the best Doctor. Yes, often the best way to improve our understanding of issues is to have our own perspectives challenged. Yes, the human perspective is fundamentally incapable of understanding 100% of the facts on anything for many reasons, and therefore our knowledge will always be incomplete and flawed. But what that implies is that we are all running around as beings who don’t see the world as it really is. This is a problem. It may be a small problem. It may be a miniscule problem. But it is a problem nonetheless. How big of a problem is it? That is left as an exercise to the reader.

Some differences of opinion are not trivial. Thinking that gay people are inherently perverted and don’t deserve Civil rights has fundamental implications for how society treats them. Thinking that what matters is preparing our life for an eternal afterlife implies that we won’t treat our current lives with the respect and actions that it deserves. Believing that running a plane into a building will reward someone with paradise and 72 virgins could lead to the killing of thousands. How many people are willing to shrug these examples aside by chalking it up to diversity of opinion?


[Image: Bill Nye giving a presentation. The caption reads, “If I agreed with you, we would both be wrong.”]

This is one reason that the simple phrase “diversity of opinion” has become almost meaningless. There are objectively good ways of enacting certain policies. There are objectively good ways of treating other humans. There are objective facts about the world around us. When someone criticizes me for not respecting someone for simply “having a different opinion” when they want to control which fucking bathrooms people can use, I have to roll my eyes. Yes, I value differing personalities and the different ideas that humans share. That is a good thing. But some ideas are also genuinely ill-informed, have little to no redeeming value, and genuinely harm people. I don’t particularly value “diversity of opinion” when one side of an issue has facts and the other simply doesn’t. And even when both sides have some facts to support their case, I see that as a situation that hasn’t been resolved, which means that some people are at least partially wrong. This is not optimal. To me, “diversity of opinion” is not as much something to be celebrated, but rather an inevitable result of imperfect humans interacting with each other.

Part of this comes from the perspective of someone from an engineering education. It’s hard to not look at things as an optimization problem. If an engineer is operating a chemical plant, they have to make it function the best way possible within certain constraints. For an oil refinery, they might want to produce the best oil possible, but this usually isn’t optimal. A refinery could try and produce pure propane or butan, but this would involve high equipment costs, meaning they have to spend more money the purer they want their products, and this ignores that no chemical is really going to be 100% pure. It would also mean that the company has to produce less chemical per day, meaning they sell less, leading to lower profits. Conversely, they could try to make as much product as possible, but this may make the quality of the chemical lower, so that certain clients will stop purchasing in the future. This also incurs higher equipment costs of its own (faster pumping, more equipment replacements, etc.). It’s an engineer’s job to help the plant operate to the best of its abilities, which for a business means getting the most money. This often involves finding a happy minimum, where there is the best balance of things like low equipment cost, quality product, and high production rate, to get the biggest income at the end of the day.

My model is similar. I want to optimize how close my perspective of the world is to the actual world I occupy. If I want to do this, then I should be continuously refining my perspective and seeing how well it matches with further observations, and then adjusting my beliefs accordingly. I have a vested interest in, as Matt Dillahunty has stated, “Believing as many true things as possible, and as few false things as possible”. However, since I inhabit a world with humans that are similarly flawed as I am, I also have a vested interest in holding them accountable to that as well. Furthermore, they have a vested interest in doing the same to each other and to me. If we want everyone to make the best decisions that they can, shouldn’t we want everyone to have an accurate worldview? And if there’s only one natural world, shouldn’t that imply that we would be best off once we are all on the same page?

Choosing When To Engage With Wrong Beliefs

Of course, we do have limited time and energy to correct for inaccuracies, so of course we are going to have to choose our battles. This is why we are largely able to set aside small differences of opinion to work for a common goal. I have plenty of progressive Christian friends who I am happy to work alongside with, perhaps at a homeless shelter or to protest a certain injustice with. I’m happy that we have, for example, the Reverend Barry Lynn as the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is an ordained minister that also recognizes the value of eliminating religious privilege, even though he would personally benefit from it. That is undeniably a good thing. At the same time, I can’t help but shake the fact that it’s a bad thing that we disagree on other things. If I am right, then he is largely devoting a significant portion of his livelihood to something that is a complete waste of time, and he is devoting his life to a lie. If he is right, then I am not acting in accordance with the wishes of his god, and could easily suffer consequences as a result of that (though the god he conceives of is decidedly less fire-and-brimstone than many protestants, so I probably wouldn’t suffer eternal hellfire). This isn’t a true dichotomy, but we certainly can’t both be right, and therefore at least one of us will have consequences of not having an accurate worldview. If one of us actually is more right than the other, then the ideal situation would be for the more inaccurate person to change their opinion. Even if it’s a minor shift in perspective, it would be a moral act to do so.

Ultimately, though, it’s often not a big enough problem for me to care. I’m not convinced that I can change any given person’s opinion on most things, and religious opinions are often so closely tied to the identity that any challenge is perceived as an attack on the person who holds them. When I pick and choose my battles, I have to consider both how much energy I’m willing to contribute to a discussion, and how effective I will be. It’s possible that by challenging someone’s deeply-held beliefs, I will create a backfire effect and cause that person to hold on to their beliefs even stronger. If I perceive a Christian’s principles as mostly harmless, I’ll be happy to give their inaccurate beliefs a pass most of the time. However, in a different context, it will be more beneficial to challenge small differences of opinion. I happen to enjoy going back-and-forth on small differences of opinion with my friends, and if I found another Christian who got that same level of enjoyment out of it, then of course we should engage with each other. Even if neither of us changed our opinions by the end of the conversation, the elevated levels of dopamine from a respectful, engaging conversation would be good enough to warrant it.

My ability to actually convince people to change their minds also plays a lot into where I pick my battles. If I am going to engage in a debate, I want to make sure I can represent my position effectively. Otherwise, I run the risk of appearing dishonest or misinformed, therefore tarnishing my position and everyone else who holds a similar perspective. If I am engaged in a discussion with a Christian apologist, I will tend not to have debates over what the Bible says, save for a few verses that I know very well. While I probably know the Bible better than most people, I’m not willing to say that I know it better than any given apologist. For that, I would defer to my bossman Bobby Cary, who has much better Biblical knowledge than I do. If I were to say something untrue about the Bible, then my opponent feels a bit more justified in thinking that atheists are incorrect. However, I understand epistemology and science very well, and I am happy to challenge religion on those grounds. I can make a good case for why faith is not a very good reason to accept that the Bible is accurate, then I should attack religion on those grounds instead. Furthermore, I can build a better, more accurate, and more testable worldview than my opponent by appealing to scientific evidence, and I’m certainly well-informed on that. If I’m going to spend my limited energy and time challenging perspectives, it’s going to be spent on battles I can justify.

This exemplifies the importance of staying in our lane. I can’t just rush into a conversation with people who are clearly wrong about something if I’m not thoroughly informed as well (I admittedly have a problem following my own advice). Even if my position is actually correct, if I don’t have good reasons for holding my positions, then I am not rationally justified in making any of my claims. That is problematic, and if someone were to point out that I have bad reasons for holding my beliefs, then it would be a morally good thing for them to do so. This is one reason I tend to avoid things such as gun control debates. I don’t spend as much time informing myself on those types of issues as others, but I do happen to hold the position that we should at least implement some common-sense restrictions. However, ammosexuals tend to come in headstrong and challenge anyone who wants to implement any sort of control whatsoever (I won’t be surprised if I get a few as a result of mentioning it here). As a result of me not being entirely informed on this particular subject, it’s likely that they could find a few things that are incorrect about my position, and it would be good for them to do so. However, even if they were capable of doing so, this does not mean that their overall stance is correct. Even if I think they are wrong, I will choose to allow someone else who is more informed than I am to take up that fight.

Addressing Accusations of Intolerance or Hubris

The point remains, though, that if people disagree on an issue, then at least one person is wrong. The optimal situation would be for everyone to get on the same page, the page that is correct. Therefore, it is a moral good for people to challenge each other when they perceive someone to be wrong. At this point, the challenger is often criticized for being intolerant of other viewpoints for merely contesting a claim that someone else is making. It’s either that, or they are accused of thinking that only they are right, and they couldn’t possibly wrong about this. I’m not going to say that nobody is ever intolerant of mere differences of opinion, or that nobody thinks they are correct on everything. However, if someone thinks that they are justified in calling someone out, then why wouldn’t they?

If I believe something to be true, then I must necessarily think I’m correct in holding that belief. If I didn’t think that something is correct, then I wouldn’t believe it to be true. If I’m a rational human being, then I should only believe things that I think are true. This all sounds tautological, but some people perceive someone’s belief that they are correct on an issue to be an indication of cockiness or hubris. But why would we hold an opinion that we don’t believe is true? We wouldn’t, and in fact, it’s impossible to do so. If you ask me my opinion on any given issue, I can tell you my opinion. If you ask me if you think I’m right on something, and I’m being consistent and honest, then I will tell you of course that I think I’m right.

I may not, however, be speaking as an expert on a topic, and therefore I will not have a high degree of certainty in that belief. I happen to think, for example, that consciousness is a pattern of chemical and electrical signals happening within a brain. However, as a non-neurologist, I am well aware that my perception of consciousness could be wildly inaccurate. Therefore, I am not willing to rush into a heated discussion between neurologists, psychologists, or any related persons to try to make my case. Furthermore, since I recognize that I am ill-informed, I can recognize that due to my lack of certainty that my position could drastically shift with new information. But, as with all things, the more informed I am on a topic, the smaller and smaller those shifts in my opinion will be. It will be useful for experts to correct me, and it is good for them to tell me when I’m wrong. This does not, however, mean I can’t share my opinion if asked or get into a discussion with another non-expert, though I will feel obligated to disclose my non-expertise.

This uncertainty should not deter us from having discussions, though. In fact, this uncertainty should encourage us to discuss with others. I we are ill-informed, then we can become informed by someone with better information. This doesn’t change that we think we are right on any given belief we hold. We can also doubt our capabilities at the same time, the two notions aren’t exclusive. As skeptics, we should doubt ourselves, even if we think we are justifiably correct. It reminds me of this particular quote from Richard Feynman,

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about…”

Even when we are well-informed on a topic, we are well within the bounds of being wrong, and that’s ok. As someone working towards a PhD, it’s the job of my peers and my boss to correct me when I’m wrong. I know my subject better than 99.999% of the United States population, but I still don’t have an absolutely clear picture of how chemicals work, and that’s ok. But if I’m going to devote my life’s work to advancing human knowledge or engineering better devices, then won’t I do the most good by being accurate? Therefore, won’t I benefit from being corrected by those around me?

Therefore, when someone wants to correct us on something, we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that said person is a know-it-all who thinks they’re right on everything. In most circumstances, we should allow for charitable discussion and consider that they could be informed about something that we aren’t aware of. Once they give their case, we can evaluate whether they are justified in their position based on the evidence that they provide.

Differences of Opinion Are Simply Problematic

Ultimately, for matters of fact, diversity of opinion is not terribly useful. I don’t have to claim that my opinion is necessarily the most correct one to make a statement like this. This is not an appeal to ideological purity, but rather a recognition that there are people who are more correct than others, and that we should prefer correct beliefs over incorrect ones. Often, when people appeal to a “difference of opinion”, this ends the conversation on a bit of a sour note. To me, it implies that the person recognizes that at least one of us is wrong, but that’s a good thing. I don’t think that’s valuable. I’d rather end the conversation recognizing that the discussion isn’t fruitful anymore, and while it’s undesirable that someone still has an error, we aren’t obligated to focus on that for the time being.

To be clear, I don’t think disagreements are a terrible thing either. As detailed above, it’s unavoidable that two people will simply disagree on something. Mostly, I’m just pointing out that we don’t live in a perfect universe, and we should recognize that more. It’s not some grand evil, it’s more like an itty-bitty evil. It could potentially cause problems, but we probably want to spend our time and energy on things we find more problematic. The sky is not falling because everyone disagrees with each other on at least some things. The point is that we value mere “differences of opinion” far too much, perhaps as lip service to the other side, at the risk of avoiding productive discourse. We would be better suited recognizing that as small of a problem our disagreements are, they are still a problem.

Appeals to differences of opinion are often used to shut down conversations. Often times, after a heated debate between a Christian and a nonbeliever, the Christian will find themselves unable to justify their claims. At that point, they are able to say, “well, we can just agree to disagree”, and end the conversation there. By doing this, they end the conversation propping up both sides as having equal merit. Since once side believes there’s a cosmic entity that created the entire universe and also cares about you masturbating, and one side emphatically does not believe that it is a justified claim, it’s highly unlikely that both sides have merit. Appeals to differences of opinion justify the ignorance of the side without good support. To pull a bit from Asimov, it props up the notion that, “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This is also a tactic pulled by trolls in comment sections, which serves to paint social justice minded skeptics as people who cannot tolerate diversity of thought. It’s certainly good to treat individuals with respect and to allow people to share their thoughts, but making this appeal often ignores that some people are simply wrong.


[Image: a duck meme, known as the actual advice mallard. The caption reads, “If you’re losing an argument, ‘agree to disagree'”]

What this does not mean is that we as skeptics should demand ideological purity, and that we should force everyone to think like us. Quite the opposite, recognizing that disagreement is at least a small problem means that we should invite conversation more. While any given discussion may not change anyone’s mind, we should recognize that we should all work towards a common goal, the truth. Disagreements are a reminder that we aren’t there yet. In that sense, being aware of our disagreements are a good thing, since it reminds us that we still have work to do. We will never have perfect knowledge, but it’d be good to work towards our best knowledge possible if we can do something about it. It may not be our priority, and that’s ok, it’s just something to keep in mind, and being aware of our own ignorance has its own merit.

I should close by saying that while I have come across as rather disparaging of appeals to differences in opinion in this post, I love talking to people whose views differ from my own. It is not in spite of this dislike of disagreement, but because of it. When I engage with my friends over something that we disagree on, it provides us with an opportunity to get that much closer to the truth. Both parties get an opportunity to become a bit more justified in our beliefs, and we should be excited at the opportunity to do so. But let’s not kid ourselves that the disagreement itself is the good thing. Rather, it’s the opportunity to correct ourselves on the disagreement. This may sound minor to some people, but this shift in perspective could make us value conversation even more. Appealing to a difference of opinion stops the conversation, props up mutually exclusive claims as having similar merit, and celebrates ignorance akin to “mysterious ways”. We are better than that.

Recognize disagreements for what they are. Itty-bitty problems at times, but problems nonetheless. It’s not my job to tell you which ones to iron out between your friends or acquaintances. And we can be respectful of each other while recognizing that they’re still a problem. But we should take time to see them as opportunities to do better, which is something that we should all strive for.


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