I wrote my critique as I listened to a persuasive speech given recently. It’s a common refrain: where’s the evidence? Of course, just as I wrote that, the speaker mentioned some expert’s opinion on the matter. I was a bit baffled as it dawned on me that this so-called expert had an opinion without any evidence to back his assertion up.
Are Numbers Any Better?
I’ll be the first to say that statistics can be easily manipulated. Any time you see a number reported, you ought to wonder about that number. You also need to wonder about the numbers that are not reported.
But, with numbers, we can (potentially) find the source of information, find the missing numbers, or perhaps find more data that supports or refutes the numbers provided. If there are any perceived flaws with the method of data collection, you could always try to either replicate the study or redesign it so that it is objective and more precise.
The Value and Use of Opinions
But, with an opinion, what can you do? When an expert says, “Chocolate ice cream is the best,” about the only three things you can do are:
- Ask, “Really?”
Everyone has an opinion. Just because someone has an advanced degree or spent twenty years in the field does not necessarily qualify his or her opinion any more than anyone else… unless research in that field is involved. If you give us a qualified opinion based on research, we can then ask for that research to see if it leads us to the same conclusion. Otherwise, the opinion is no more valid than any other opinion.
Experts in Their Field
My doctor can give me medical advice because she has studied medicine for years and her opinion on certain medical topics is based on research. However, when she tells me that home schooling is not a valid form of education or that students need to wear uniforms because she feels it would help students focus on education instead of fashion… well, she’s certainly allowed to think and feel as she pleases, but she’s not as studied in the fields of education or sociology.
Quoting her seems like a good idea; that doctor title makes her sound smart and therefore qualified to give her opinion. And, she is smart, but her opinion on non-medical or non-researched topics is just that: an opinion.
How to Handle Expert Opinions
Expert opinions cannot be the stopping point of your research. If the expert says, “Studies show…” then find out what studies are doing all this showing. When an expert says, “I think,” or “I feel,” find out where that thought or feeling originates.
If it’s based in research, then find those sources. Then, search for other sources. Do the sources agree or disagree? Is there new information the expert hasn’t considered?
If the opinion is based in experience, then realize that this is a limited source; we can’t replicate someone’s experience nor can we determine how that experience impacted that individual. Someone who witnesses the misuse of charity donations could form a very negative opinion of all charity organizations based on this one unfortunate incident. This experience will have more impact than all the studies that show the positive effects of charity funds correctly used.
Formulate Your Own
Ultimately, the role of the expert is to be the person who has done the research for us and provides us with a way to see that research. They are not there to tell us how to feel. They are there to give us information that will help us to determine what to think or how to feel. To that, end, make sure you seek several experts, but more importantly, find the sources from which their opinions come. Then, and only then, formulate your own opinion. You might be surprised to find that by the time you do, you’ll be an expert, too.