This week, I have been reading about theories of public opinion.
It seems to me that the word ‘opinion’ is quite frankly inadequate. Why, you ask? The problem is that it has two meanings which seem synonymous, but are actually quite distinct and almost contradictory.
Let me explain.
In the Oxford dictionary:
- A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.
- A statement of advice by an expert on a professional matter.
- I refuse to eat pumpkin. It’s mushy and smells gross. This is my opinion.
- I am a GP. I believe you have an infectious disease. This is also my opinion.
One, you may think is ridiculous, and perhaps wrong. The other you probably trust.
(Please don’t, I’m not actually a doctor).
And here we come to the problem of politics and public opinion.
We all do no end of feeling and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the Voice of God.
Mark Twain, 1923
In Australia’s representative democracy, it is a politician’s job to make decisions based on the opinions of people in their electorate. But which type of opinion are we talking about? The ‘feeling’ or the ‘thinking’?
If the ‘public’ is a genuine random sampling of the electorate, it is unlikely that all of the people will be informed on a particular issue. So in a public opinion poll, we are more likely to hear #1, the ‘feeling opinion’, that is not based on facts or knowledge. The media normalise this by using opinion polls to frame current issues such as climate change (like this example, or this one). Surely the percentage of scientists who are concerned about climate change should hold more sway than the percentage of the voters who are concerned.
Strictly speaking, it’s true that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But the dilemma begins when public opinion is formed without facts or knowledge, and then this opinion is used to justify decisions that will affect many people.
So what can we do?
Should we be giving the informed citizens a more powerful vote in our democracy?
Or is it the role of lobbyists, the media or even the experts to point out the gaps between the ‘feeling opinion’ and the ‘thinking opinion’ to our politicians?
Should we hold politicians responsible for evaluating opinions?
The problem with the word ‘opinion’, is that it does not give us any indication of where on the feeling to thinking spectrum it might be, not to mention the fact that thinking and feeling can be blurred, so that one can hold feelings about facts.
I think that in a democracy, it’s important that our elected representatives consider these challenges so that they can make informed and rational decisions on behalf of a large number of people.
That’s my opinion, anyway.
Let me know what you think/feel.
Twain quoted in Rubenstein, S M 1995, Surveying Public Opinion Wadsworth, Belmont, Calif. p.12.