Some opinions on opinions

Some opinions on opinions

So, I'm at lunch with an old mate when we suddenly find ourselves in a shouting argument in an otherwise quiet cafe about elite universities. She's all, ''they are doing an astonishing job at evening out inequality.'' And I'm all, ''ohmigod, all elite universities and elite schools do is replicate inequality. It's all doctors begetting doctors and lawyers begetting lawyers.''

See how exciting my lunches are? Once you've stopped yawning and scratching, I'd like to introduce you to two young blokes who have one aim in mind: to get rid of the shouting matches based on ridiculous opinions and replace them with peaceful evidence-based discussion.

Having opinions doesn't necessarily mean that they should be heard by everyone.

Having opinions doesn't necessarily mean that they should be heard by everyone.

This will not stop fun. It won't even stop shouting matches in cafes - but it may stop us from repeating "I'm entitled to my opinion."

Ben Williamson and Patrick Stokes agree on this - an opinion is only worth having if it is based on facts. Stokes, 35, wrote an opinion piece last year for The Conversation. Its headline was eye-grabbing: "No, you are not entitled to your opinion." And the new philosophy academic at Deakin University set out the argument for evidence; and in the meantime, attracting the enthusiasm of celebrity philosopher Richard Dawkins who made sure nearly half a million pairs of eyes saw Stokes's piece.


The thesis was this - you can have all the opinions you want but they need to be based on more than your gut feel. Truth is not subjective. Check out what the science/history/maths record says before you start mouthing off - because there is much that is absolutely incontrovertible once you have that evidence. As he says, it's about "just not claiming that all arguments and all reasons for believing something are equally valid".

And Williamson, 37, a Canberra software engineer, is keen to build a place where you can find that evidence; or at least find what others consider to be evidence.

This place, with the comforting name of Reasonwell, is a site where you can pose a question and get others to engage with that question. It works the way another favourite site of mine works. Quora, established in 2009, allows users to ask questions and answer them. In any one minute, you can find questions and answers on life in China, meteorology, ripeness of avocadoes; and parenting techniques. Reasonwell borrows the voting mechanic found in Quora, Williamson says, "so that the crowd can vote the best supporting and opposing arguments up to the top, closest to the contentious claims/propositions they bear upon."

Williamson says that the Reasonwell twist is that those arguments are themselves composed of claims, so users can drill down into details and evidence, nit-pick and deconstruct in an organised way.

Last Sunday, when I was having a minor tantrum about having to think of yet another password for yet another secure site, I suggested that we use fingerprints instead of passwords. I thought that was an absolutely brilliant idea - since I'd spent the weekend reading that passwords were insecure, that everyone in the universe would eventually be hacked; and that really, to be safe, we needed two-stage authentication procedures (and geez, that's just more time-consumption so I can prove IyamwhoIyam). But when Ben put up that question on Reasonwell (expressed in a much more scientific way), I discovered that fingerprint theft, if not common, has already certainly occurred on more than just Ocean's Eleven (or Twelve, or maybe even Minority Report). In fact, in about two minutes, I realised that using fingerprints as passwords was a really bad idea because of the evidence against it. Mind you, we couldn't get to a better solution in a short space of time, which leaves me with having to find something better than P4s5w0rd.

Williamson, who won an ACT government innovation grant last year to further the Reasonwell project, says he always liked the concept of many people being able to contribute to a bigger idea. That's the Wikipedia model, where many can contribute and many can edit those contributions. Of course, the problem with all Wikis is that the latest edit is the last word, with the claims only tested the next time someone opens up the page. A couple of years ago, when in hospital, I amused myself by searching for Wikipedia errors. It didn't take me long to find them and then it didn't take long for others to reinstate those errors.

Both Stokes and Willliamson say that public debate becomes debased when it revolves around one person or another just reiterating an opinion. Williamson says he has spent the past six years trying to come up with a software solution to the problem; and Stokes, of course, is attempting to make change through teaching.

But the goal is the same - to reshape our democracy based on what we know to be true not what we think might be true.

As Stokes says: "We train people to win arguments, to win conversations, rather than to be right.

"We have got to a point where people think they can say whatever they want and when you challenge them, they just yell slogans."

And our challenge is this - breathing in and out and remembering that yelling back is never the answer. Even if you do have an opinion.

■ Follow me on Twitter @jennaprice or email

Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist, and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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