Arguing with an inflated balloon full of old breath


Most people understand the difference between an opinion and a preference. “I love Italian food – to tell the truth, I prefer it to Spanish food,” is a preference. On the other hand, it is opinion to say, “Italian food is better than Spanish food.”

With preferences, you don’t need to substantiate anything. You don’t need to present any evidence. You don’t need to quote facts from an authoritative source to give weight to your preference.

Opinions, on the other hand, are an animal of a different colour. Why do you say, for example, that Italian food is better than Spanish food? Why do you think one player will be more valuable to the national team than another player? Why do you think one solution is better than another solution?

People want their opinions to carry weight. Indeed, many people want their opinions to be of such a nature that other people would almost be compelled to agree with them.

When I give an opinion, I like to back it up with reliable facts – names, dates, perhaps some statistics, and if I can stretch my mind that far, some scientific data. If I cannot recite the relevant facts at the appropriate time, I will either stay quiet or express my opinion with a clear understanding that my facts may be wrong. If you can prove my facts are incorrect, you can expect me to acknowledge my error. I will also thank you for alleviating me of my ignorance.

Of course, I expect the same courtesy from you. If you cannot give your opinion weight with verifiable facts, and I refute your argument with names and dates and figures, I will expect you to admit that you are wrong. The same goes if you indeed quote what you think are facts and I prove your information is incorrect.

If I have laid verifiable facts on the table that prove your opinion carries no weight, and you insist that your opinion is accurate, I will give you another chance – people don’t often like to admit in the heat of the moment that they’re mistaken. If you continue to insist that you are indeed right, brushing aside the facts I have tabled as mere inconveniences, you leave me with no choice other than to conclude that you are an inflated balloon full of old breath – one that could burst at any time. I won’t believe you when you say your name is Sam Sorrow or John Doe or Pete Burger. I won’t believe you when you tell me you’re a qualified dentist or a mechanic or a lecturer at a local university. I will indeed not believe another word that comes out of your mouth.

If you refuse to acknowledge a fact as a fact, you expose yourself as unreliable, intellectually shallow and underdeveloped, and probably as one who thinks nothing of lying, and of deceiving people.

People who make a habit of this must ask themselves why they find it so terrible to admit they are wrong. And how sure are they that they don’t need professional help?

POSTSCRIPT: Sunday, 11 June 2017

Prediction can also be seen as opinion. It is also possible that two different predictions can be made, both backed by verifiable facts, with the second prediction based on information that was overlooked in the first prediction.

Example: I think Tennis Player A is a better clay court player than Tennis Player B. To give weight to my opinion, I quote statistics of the two players’ performances on clay courts.

“I see what you mean,” my conversation partner will admit. But then he makes a prediction. “I still think B is going to win today’s match.”

“On what do you base your prediction?” I will ask. “I just proved to you that A has a much better record on clay.”

Maybe we have a bit of an audience following our conversation. Everyone is now looking at my friend. If he says nothing to give weight to his prediction, people will disregard it. Even if he is right and Player B wins the game, the other people will probably write his prediction off as pure luck.

There is another possibility, though. After reminding my friend that I have quoted statistics that prove, as far as I am concerned, that Player A is a better clay court player than Player B, my friend says: “I hear what you’re saying but look a little deeper. A needed at least four sets in each of the first four matches of this tournament to defeat his opponent. B, on the other hand, dominated his opponents from round one. If you look at the previous three clay court tournaments, you will also see B has been performing better and better, and he has significantly improved his technique. Plus, don’t forget that A had knee surgery seven months ago.”

The first set of facts about the players’ performances in clay court tournaments remains accurate, but clearly more information has now come to light. Even if Player B loses the match, everyone should be impressed by my friend’s reasoning ability and by the way he gave weight to his opinion, to his prediction that the player with the less impressive overall record might just have a higher likelihood of winning.