More Than an Opinion
Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources
Mark Twain once said, “The difference between truth and fiction is that the latter must always be credible in order to work.” The same can be said about opinions. For an opinion to sound like truth, it simply has to sound credible.
In these tumultuous times, opinion is presented as truth – using graphic visuals and fiery rhetoric at lightning speed. A purposefully articulated opinion comes from a credible source, sounds plausible, and ignites our imaginations. It looks like truth, even though it still is just an opinion. Throw in the Internet, and it spreads like wildfire.
A case in point is an article published online in First Things (tinyurl.com/2o8rwrok) entitled, “Medicating the Masses” by Adrian Gaty, a pediatrician based in Austin, Texas. He commented on a City Journal piece written by Lee Siegel entitled, “Antidepressants, Empathy, and Democracy” (tinyurl.com/2n8aanea):
Medicine bothers with attentiveness for one simple reason: We have a drug for it. If Ritalin did not exist, neither would ADHD (emphasis added); the treatment conjures the disease. After the accidental discovery that amphetamines—widely used to help soldiers stay alert in the trenches—also helped children sit still in class, drugmakers sensed a new market for their “pep pills” and started pushing the use of stimulants in school decades before the medical community figured out a plausible diagnosis to justify the treatment.
Before I comment further, let me say, Gaty may be correct. My intent is not to confirm or challenge his opinion. It’s a bold statement to suggest a pharmaceutical company first developed a ubiquitous drug and then created the ADHD disorder to sell its product to treat the disease. Such rhetoric demands proof, not just an opinion.
Gaty’s hypothesis (by definition: “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation”) is presented in such a way as to “settle the matter.” That is done by identifying a culprit who stands to benefit (pharmaceuticals), credentials to suggest an authority on the topic (Gaty is a pediatrician), and wording to suggest inside knowledge (“drugmakers sensed a new market”). Because we all have a natural inclination toward evil (Genesis 8:21), we quickly pick up on the potential of ill-gotten gains at the cost of others who might either be innocent or naïve. The opinion is plausible, but notice that no proof is given.
Gaty might be right, but in an era of social media, opinions and hypotheses quickly rise to the level of fact, predicated on the notion of previous nefarious activity. We seem to be keenly aware of the sinful inclination of others, but we ignore our own sinful inclination. The desire to be right without the evidence to support it can be, in itself, a sinful self-glorification.
Gaty has every right to question the abundance of Ritalin dispensed to his patients in his field of pediatrics. Truth be told, if abuse took place in the overprescribing of addictive pain medication, it is entirely plausible that Ritalin prescribing may have drifted off course as well. In fact, questioning and even challenging are healthy (Proverbs 27:17). Please take note, however, that potential for abuse is not in itself abuse.
It is very important that as we identify the speck in the eyes of others, we do not overlook the plank in our own eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Creating a hypothesis needs to serve as more than a rallying cry to our tribe of supporters. A hypothesis is presented for questioning, challenging, and research. Otherwise, all we have is an opinion.
Contemporary Christian theologian, Carl Trueman, once insightfully wrote for the same First Things blog:
I am over fifty. I no longer care what anyone except my wife thinks about me. That particularly applies to anyone under the age of thirty-five. You should therefore feel free to disagree with me on anything I say because it is virtually impossible to offend me. But I must also add that, old and closed-minded as I am, I have no vested interest in holding an incorrect opinion on anything. Therefore, if you think I am wrong on some issue, be it historical, philosophical, or ethical, then you are under a moral obligation to persuade me to change my mind. But when you do so, please give me an argument, not some emotional plea based on your feelings. After all, if you simply feel I am wrong and I simply feel I am right, we’ll quickly find ourselves at an impasse. (tinyurl.com/yapwkxg4 accessed 3-17-23)
Every hypothesis begins with an opinion. To flaunt a hypothesis, or an opinion as anything more than a personal, non-researched, at best anecdotally-supported notion, is deceptive and wrong.
In the “old days” before the instantaneous broadcast of opinions, such theories were subject to intense scrutiny. A pediatrician, rather than blogging on the notion, would present a paper supporting his suspicions with facts in a paper or presentation to people equally opinionated and hopefully, more scholarly than he is. The goal was to get to the bottom of it, to examine the facts, and arrive at a conclusion that was evident from the evidence.
There is a lot of talk about bringing kindness and gentleness into an arena of differing opinions. That would be a good thing (Philippians 4:5). I suggest the way to do that is by raising a hypothesis like a serious student of research – raising a question to be studied further – not proclaiming it as a settled matter.
It also means accepting the results of the research. That does not presuppose the research was conducted with perfection and is fully complete. All of us are, after all, imperfect. Yet, rarely does an abundance of research collapse under the weight of an eloquently articulated opinion. We ignore facts and discard the evidence at our own peril. Those who need to be convinced of our position deserve better than just our opinion.
This subject has special pertinence in the field of Christian bioethics, or for that fact, in the field of Christians stating opinions on a plethora of issues that surround us. Martin Luther cautioned:
We expose our faith to ridicule if we affirm that a certain thing is contained in the sacred Scriptures and in the articles of our faith, only to be refuted and shown that it is not contained in them; being ignorant of our own affairs, we become a stumbling block to our opponents and to the weak. But most of all we should guard against impairing the authority of the Holy Scriptures. ~ Martin Luther (LW: 36:96)
A good hypothesis begins with plausibility. It is plausible that people stretch the truth to make money. We have seen it before. A good hypothesis, however, needs to be more than a notion predicated on the possibility of false motives.
For example, it was common in early Christian bioethics for pro-life advocates to point out that making a medical decision for someone could be tainted with the possibility that they would profit as beneficiaries of a life insurance policy or an inheritance. The problem with the notion is that it described just about everyone who makes a medical decision for a loved one. A husband could be the beneficiary of his wife’s insurance policy, and the wife could no longer make decisions for herself. That didn’t mean, de facto, that he was after the money. Yes, it could; however, the possibility alone isn’t sufficient to make wild statements as if it were the actual motive in the husband’s medical decision-making.
Many hypotheses fail. Deeper research finds more at work than what is seen on the surface. Then again, some hypotheses succeed. After more than mere anecdotal experience, the researcher creates a thesis stating a position, presents the evidence, and finishes it with a concise conclusion.
In the field of research, even confirmed theses (conclusions) are revisited to either confirm the original findings or change the findings in light of more recent discoveries. Acknowledging developing science and technology, we accept that past conclusions deserve to be revisited. It has taught us, for example, that blood-letting is not helpful.
At the start, however, let one’s hypothesis be a hypothesis. Be careful not to rally the troops that are less critical of how they read and accept “facts.” If a hypothesis is passionately held, then do the research and subject it to others for their criticism in a common pursuit of the truth. Even then, do not stop there, for advancements may very well require the dust to be blown off research to accommodate new discoveries and understandings. And what’s wrong with that? Isn’t our goal to help others ahead of ourselves (Philippians 2:2-5) and bring the truth to light (John 3:21)? Even when our research uncovers controversial evidence, we present it in a way that witnesses to the Lord of life. That can only be done by establishing and maintaining a relationship. And sometimes, that means our own hypotheses (opinions) must be reevaluated in light of the evidence.
January 8, 2005
April 3, 2018