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popular_opinion1-640x51211I’ve mentioned more than once that I’ve been engaged in debate on Facebook with people who went to my high school, on a variety of topics.

As you might expect there are two camps, the liberals versus the conservatives. As you might assume, there are any number of shades of grey.

It got me to thinking. Yes, we are THERE again.

The Contrarian asks me occasionally why I bother. “You will convince no one, you know that don’t you?” he muses.

Yes I know that. Here is my list:

  1. There are lots of people who read but don’t comment because they are interested but not passionate. My comments may provide the last piece of the puzzle that enables them to form an opinion. They more people who are involved in the process the better.
  2. I learn a great deal myself. Arguments lead me not to empty talking points but to actual research, and so I learn refinement of my opinion as well as to create a more cogent argument for what I believe.
  3. In attempting to figure out why those who disagree with me believe what they believe, I’m forced to confront my own reasons for believing what I believe. Sometimes I find that my reasons aren’t worthy of supporting that opinion–in a word, they are self-serving. I can adjust  my opinion accordingly.

It’s this latter point that I wish to address.

I’m inclined to think of myself as something of a Renaissance woman. Now before you commence to laughing out loud, let me proceed. I am such only in the sense that my interests are very far-ranging and always have been. Along the way, I’ve managed to learn more than the average person about a whole lot of things from cosmology to paleontology, to biblical studies and theology, and so forth. I am not a Renaissance woman in the sense of having expertise in any of these, just an intense interest and the willingness to learn.

That said, this is how I approach forming an opinion. I will use the example of an area of biblical study called Markan priority. Markan priority simple states that the Gospel of Mark was probably the first gospel written that has come down to us. It posits that both Matthew and Luke used Mark, their own independent information, and a source called “Q” to form their own gospels which were written 10-15 years after Mark’s.

I’ve read numerous books on various aspects of biblical studies, some couple of hundred at least, and I have studied under three professors with PH.D’s in the field. I’ve attended dozens of workshops and adult education classes on various biblical issues as well. So I consider myself above average in knowledge.

Yet, I am no expert. Far from it. I cannot read Koine Greek which is essential to actually study of the bible on a professional level. So how do I arrive at an opinion?

You may first wonder why anybody cares. I can tell you that they do; there is a hotly contested debate over this issue. Why?  Because to a fundamentalist, not only the words in the bible, but their very organization within the bible is something God ordered. Open any bible and you will find that Matthew is the first gospel you come to. To disturb that by suggesting that Mark was written first is tantamount to calling God a liar.

So I have read all the arguments pro and con on Markan priority. I understand them well enough. I am aware that at this time, there is a clear and fairly overwhelming majority who believe that for all kinds of reasons, Mark was probably written first. All kinds of other things make sense when this is assumed. They make no sense by and large when you don’t.

So my opinion, given that I am no expert myself, is that the better opinion is that Mark was written first.

This is how I arrive at opinions on any field of study that I am not an expert in.

Sometimes, I might even wish that the things were otherwise. When it comes to theories about the future of the universe, I’m compelled to accept that the majority opinion is that the universe is continuing its expansion from the “big bang” and that that expansion is accelerating. I’d rather believe that the universe is in a “steady state” meaning it’s stable. For some reason, that’s comforting to me. But I feel that I have no basis to buck the experts who spend their lives studying this stuff, and like any real scientist, aren’t going to pursue dead ends intentionally. There is not glory in pursuing obvious falsehoods.

So while an opinion might make me feel better, I cannot maintain it for that reason alone.

Similarly, I’d love to believe that global warming isn’t true. It would make me feel a lot better about the future certainly. But I’m constrained to believe what 97% of all climate scientists tell me–that humans are indeed part of the equation of global warming and that we need to do what we can to turn it around before it is too late–if that is at all possible.

What troubles me deeply is the degree to which average people, who have no expertise in the area of climate (just like me) are passionately in the camp of the 3% claiming that global warming is a hoax. Since they cannot possibly be following the same process of opinion forming as myself, what system are they using?

I’m afraid that they are buying into the hoax theory simply because they wish that to be the answer. Either because they feel guilty that they have been a part of the problem, or because they don’t want to pay (taxes) to attempt to solve the problem. If you admittedly aren’t an expert, how do you “choose” one set of arguments provided to you by  those who have a very high stake in their position, i.e., gas and oil interests and those they pay to “study” the issue?

Is my model of opinion formation wrong? Am I missing something here? I’m puzzled, and when I am, I figure you guys can bail me out. So straighten out my aching head, for I’m confused.

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