Recently on a social media thread I was commenting on, I said that I said that I was bothered at how people seem to adopt political opinions in ‘bundles’ without thinking individual policies through based on evidence. They buy the centre-left bundle, or the libertarian bundle, or the conservative bundle. Someone else commented, “An opinion is just that an opinion. It is not truth or fact and doesn’t need to be. I hate okra. My opinion is based on the “fact” that it is slimy and tastes bad to me. What if I said okra is bad, that’s a different story but still it’s still based on my personal view. ”
The notion that political opinions are just opinions like food preferences lies at the heart of what is wrong with much of political discussions. When it comes to describing political problems and proposing solutions, there usually are relevant facts. They may be sometimes be hard to discover or hard to weigh up, but some relevant facts usually exist and we should make the effort to know them before we advocate positions.
There are actual facts available on police shootings of black people in the US, and those statistics can and should influence your view on whether there is a real problem that needs to be fixed. If you deny the existence of a problem when the stats say there is a problem, then you won’t take action when it should be taken, and if the stats were to show that there isn’t a problem then you would be making major changes and spending money to fix a problem that didn’t exist. (Note here, and below that I’m talking about the relevance of facts to the policy you do or don’t advocate, I’m not – here- adopting a position on BLM, I’m saying that relevant facts usually exist.)
When environmentalists advocated removing CFC gasses from refrigerators and aerosols in the 1970s and 80s because CFC gasses were damaging the Ozone layer, those claims about CFC damage were either factually right or they weren’t. If the factual claims were wrong, then an incorrect policy was being advocated. to solve a problem that didn’t exist. Refrigerators and aerosols would cost more to consumers when perhaps they didn’t need to. If the factual claims were right then the policy being advocated was correct and the need to fix the problem was real. The facts actually mattered.
In relation to abortion, there are many factors that might influence your position. One of them might be when a fetus becomes pain capable. If this is correctly claimed to be at 24 weeks, this may be a factor you want to take into account on when, if ever, you allow abortion. If someone falsely claims that a fetus becomes pain capable at 10 weeks, this may make a difference to your position, and you would then be adopting a position on the basis of incorrect claims of fact. There might be many other factors you want to take into account, but if you are influenced by a false claim of fact that’s really not a good thing.
In relation to NAFTA and whether you oppose further free trade pacts, it actually matters whether the people who have lost their jobs to cheap imports would have lost them anyway due to robotisation. A belief (for example) that free trade benefits countries as a whole but that free trade agreements should only go ahead with generous retraining packages for workers who will be displaced, and incentives for new industries to be established in affected areas is a position that involves millions of dollars of expenditure. If such policies are advocated or opposed, it actually matters whether factual information exists and whether it supports one side or another. It’s not the same as ‘I like pumpkin soup but I don’t like potato soup.’
If you adopt the position that opinions are all just like food preferences, then politics just becomes a process of tribes screaming each other about soup, resulting in whoever screams the loudest getting to spend billions of dollars on policies that might or might not work at fixing problems that might or might not exist.
Note that I’m NOT starting a debate here about BLM, abortion, or NAFTA. My point is that on almost all political and social issues, relevant facts exist. A disregard for facts leads to mere tribalisation of politics followed by bad policy and expenditure on wrong policies when that money could be spent on policies that really would fix real problems. If we think that social policies are just opinions about soup, we are in a lot of trouble, and that thinking needs to be challenged.