Distinguishing your opinions from research

My misanthropy is reaching a new height as I finally accept that this article needs to be written. I’m not quite sure how humanity manages to be this pathetically stupid, but it’s time someone put it across forcefully, once and for all.

A couple of years ago, when I wrote How Not To Raise a Rapist, I based it not on feminist theory or my own theory, or something a friend told me. I based it on tested research that came from FBI profiling experience and psychology, as evidenced by the links and citations (links and citations indicate that a thing called research has been conducted – research occurs when you locate expert sources and report their verifiable information, instead of just opening your mouth and seeing what tumbles out). I would estimate that 30% of the responses to this post said, in essence, “No, that’s not correct. Rape is about X, and rapists become rapists due to Z, and all rapists are B.” No links, no citations. These people were just magically in possession of the truth.

I believe they honestly didn’t realize that they were spouting opinions as fact. I think they see rape as a Great Mystery, like whether or not there is a god, and therefore they are as entitled to their “beliefs” about rape as I am to mine. But the question of whether there’s a god is non-verifiable. No one can prove or disprove the existence of a god. But rapists are far more mundane, and psychiatrists have been talking to them for years, and law enforcement has been chasing them for years. Hard and soft data have been accumulated.

This confusion of uninformed opinion with researched conclusions goes beyond the topic of rape (that article was just one of the best examples around here), and it goes well beyond this site. I have never seen anything as frightening as the last couple of years in US politics. We are drowning in politicians who aren’t just trying to hoodwink us with the usual bullshit – these people seem to genuinely not realize they are full of shit. This is making Newt Gingrich look refreshing (because he’s full of shit and he knows it), and Newt Gingrich is a philandering hypocritical erratic dangerous pile of pus.

We are dealing with a medical industry that believes all sorts of things with no basis at all, because either the studies haven’t been done, or the studies don’t support the theories they choose to espouse. Example: we’ve just recently learned that eating cholesterol is not the cause of having high cholesterol, and high cholesterol may in fact be more closely related to corn syrups and sugars instead (oops! sorry you lost a loved one due to false info, our bad). The whole “obesity epidemic” cannot produce a shred of proof that merely carrying extra weight causes health problems (if it did, there wouldn’t be a statistically significant minority of fat people with excellent cholesterol, heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.), but the fat shaming comes from all quarters these days. And meanwhile, who’s looking for what really causes cholesterol-related issues, or what really causes all the things fat is being conveniently blamed for?

Public policies are being based on uninformed opinions, on topics where there is information to be had.

Now, in the absence of hard data, when some action is absolutely required, you have to go with your best guess. But these topics are not Great Mysteries. There is scientific evidence of what makes rapists tick (which lead to solid ideas on what might actually reduce rape in the future). There is hard scientific evidence of how bodies work, and most questions about bodies can be answered through scientific tests. There is hard, verifiable evidence on how and why the middle class is collapsing, but screw that: let’s blame welfare and food stamp recipients, or people of color, or the Occupy movement, or fatties! Or let’s deny it’s collapsing at all and say those who claim it is are just lazy whiners who want a handout (while utterly failing to notice that big business is pretty much entirely functioning on government handouts these past few years)!

I believe the failure to distinguish opinions from research is not actually a failure at all, but a deliberate derailment of the academic process of forming evidenced conclusions. You want to believe what you want to believe, so you won’t let anyone tell you different, no matter the evidence they have to back them up. Facing reality is a social responsibility. If you refuse to face it, you are a threat to society.

And this needs to be said.


  1. Shay J says

    I agree with everything you just said. The reality that you are naming and calling out for being stupid is particularly frustrating for me. I’m a geneticist. There’s plenty I don’t know, but there’s plenty more I do know. I can show you what I know and show you how I know it, but it means nothing if you don’t even believe in the concept of “fact” and I feel that’s what’s happening here. And this weird, anti-intellectualism is contrary to whatever driving force that people believe is “American”. Their own basic narrative runs afoul of the idea.

    It’s just bizarre when you lay out facts and figures or provide someone a direction on where they can go to do their own research and it still comes down to that person spewing “truthiness”. I once got into a debate that became an argument on supply-side economics, then realized we weren’t working at a base level of knowledge, then asked the person if they even knew who Arthur Laffer was or what the Laffer Curve was only to be met with a blank stare. It’s just, so difficult to even open a dialogue when you can’t condense the source material to a snappy slogan.

  2. Andrea Elizabeth says

    I feel like this is happening clearly with Plan B – the “keep it behind the counter” decision from the Department of Health and Human Services. No that’s okay, Secretary, let the FDA worry about “science” and “evidence” and “facts.” You go ahead and prioritize “opinions” and “religious beliefs” …oh I mean politics…ahead of that. Makes perfect sense.

    No, I’m not bitter. Why do you ask?

  3. says

    BTW, I just changed some of the wording: mainly “theory” became “opinion” and “fact” became “research” or “researched conclusion.” A reader emailed and reminded me that when I said “theory” what I really meant was “hypothesis” in scientific terms, and that spurred some thinking that led to an improvement in the overall terminology.

    Shay J: And this weird, anti-intellectualism is contrary to whatever driving force that people believe is “American”. Their own basic narrative runs afoul of the idea.

    I know, right? How can we innovate and rise to the top and all that, if we’re not allowed to privilege evidenced information over information with no evidence? How on earth do they think business functions?

    VP: Our market data indicate that customers don’t like our new six-fingered gloves. Apparently most people don’t want to carry a roll of Lifesavers in the extra finger.
    CEO: Oh, of course they do. My dog agrees with me. Change *all* our gloves to the six-fingered model, pronto.

    Or, wait, maybe that is how business works anymore. And then when they fail, they go to Daddy Government and say, “Please, Daddy Govt, we need more allowance! The market for 6 fingered gloves has shrunk remarkably and unpredictably in the past few years…”

    Andrea Elizabeth: No that’s okay, Secretary, let the FDA worry about “science” and “evidence” and “facts.” You go ahead and prioritize “opinions” and “religious beliefs” …oh I mean politics…ahead of that. Makes perfect sense.

    Exactly! That’s what got me thinking about all this. It’s really, really frightening.

  4. The Other Anne says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Well honestly now I want six fingered gloves to carry around lifesavers.

    Also, I saw this just the other day with a NYT article on rape statistics in which commenters claimed the rates were too high because “they thought so and that also think women are liars.” No citations were included an the only anecdata provided was that none of the women they know have been raped. Oh, really there, Tiger? Maybe they don’t tell you their secrets because they know you’re a GARBAGE BAG of epic proportions! Most comments I read from self-identified men and women alike had anecdata supporting the findings, or we’re unsurprised by them.

  5. says

    The Other Anne,

    That happens SO MUCH in rape discussion. It’s never a bad thing to question statistics, since they are sometimes skewed or even manufactured to suit someone’s agenda. But (1) people are much quicker to question stats that support the idea that society needs a lot of work than stats that suggest everything’s smooth sailing and (2) and while doubting a stat is a starting point, stats must be countered with something equally verifiable, not merely your perceived experience. Or you could even raise good questions about how the findings got found – what questions were asked, and did it rely solely on self-reporting, for example.

  6. Andrea Elizabeth says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    I heard about that. It had to do with the fact that pizza is super cheap to make – if it’s a vegetable, public schools can make that instead of having to buy more expensive actual vegetable for the kids to eat. I’m assuming there’s some sort of law that school lunches have to include a vegetable of some sort?

    And then they go and cry about our “obesity epidemic.”

  7. SunlessNick says

    You want to believe what you want to believe, so you won’t let anyone tell you different, no matter the evidence they have to back them up.

    There are two sides to every story, but there are not two sides to reality. The former has become such a pervasive assumption that the latter is forgotten.

  8. Alara Rogers says

    My five year old daughter overheard me ranting about the pizza thing and declared “Pizza is not a vegetable!” So I told her I was sending her to Congress to testify, but she said she was too busy working on building a lily pad world in Minecraft.

    And that’s why pizza has been declared a vegetable; because the experts who know that this is not true are all too busy playing video games, reading Dr. Seuss and watching Phineas and Ferb to testify to Congress.

  9. says

    Andrea Elizabeth, I’m not sure there are any laws, but the Obama Administration put forth a guideline to do with school lunches and veggies, and that’s when the frozen food corps phoned up Congress to rectify this deep unfairness to them.

    I think a lot of Repubs have their kids in private schools, so this all just goes back to the Social Darwinism which is really the heart of conservative philosophy. They clearly consider some people disposable, and they’re moving the bar rapidly from the “welfare” level to working and lower middle class.

    Which, by the way, is another reason they want to get rid of birth control and abortions for those who can’t afford to break the law. If we get so discouraged by the crumbs we’re being fed that we just stop having kids, who will clean Republican toilets?

  10. says

    SunlessNick: There are two sides to every story, but there are not two sides to reality. The former has become such a pervasive assumption that the latter is forgotten.

    And this is one area where we certainly can’t blame mass media. From Nancy Drew to CSI, we’ve got about 50 billion hours of visual and text media preaching that witness accounts can be wrong, but evidence will tell you what really happened. You would really think that alone would get across the message… unless people are just determined NOT to get it.

  11. Azzy says

    Unfortunately, most people do not like being proven wrong, so when that happens, they will often twist reality to show how they were right from the start, even if that means bluntly denying solid evidence.

  12. Casey says

    When it comes to FBI-sourced hard evidence about rape (or just any statistics about any crime that are sourced from the FBI), what can we (general we) do when we run into assholes who shoot down said hard evidence with the whole “HERP DERP THE EFF-BEE-EYE?!? THAT’S JUST BULLSHIT THE GOVERNMENT LIES TO YOU, YOU’RE STUPID FOR BUYING INTO THEM” argument?

  13. says


    Very little – like Azzy says, it’s all about ego, and most people are such slaves to their ego, they are dangers to society.

    I just sneer and laugh and say, “Oh, right – YOU have better evidence? How many rapists have you put away based on your theories of who they are, how they work, and how to catch them?” Or point out that the fact that the FBI *catches* them by using their data is proof the data works.

    But like Azzy said, a lot of people are such ego-slaves that they will never admit they’re wrong. I find it best to just ignore/avoid people like that. That’s why we all keep counseling you not to feed those trolls you run into. :)

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