June 27, 2011
In a world overrun by half-truths and wall-to-wall opinion, the simple words "I don't know" might very well become the most valuable phrase in any language.
There's plenty of grousing about the lopsided ratio of opinion to fact in our lives. But what irks me more is that these days it seems everyone is obligated to have a point of view on every issue.
Last week's news reports about the Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas confirmed it. For the third year in a row, the glitzy beauty competition culminated in a flurry of politically charged, controversial questions posited by a panel of B-level celebrities. This year's winner, Alyssa Campanella, Miss California, had to respond to the question, "Do you believe in legalized marijuana?" She said no, more or less, except for medicinal purposes.
The runner-up, poor Miss Tennessee, was asked if the 1st Amendment protected the burning of the Koran or other religious books in the same way it protects the burning of the flag. After a bit of hemming and hawing, she said, "Absolutely not," a response that riled up pageant judge and 1st Amendment absolutist Penn Jillette, who tweeted how happy he was to "help her lose" the crown.
But even before the final round, the 51 Miss USA contestants were subjected to a grilling over whether evolution should be taught in public schools. Only two — Miss Massachusetts and Miss California — gave an unequivocal yes; the rest said no or fudged.
Do we really need a beauty queen to tell us how to solve our local school curriculum controversies? Maybe so, but only if she's actually thought it through and can articulate her argument. Just once, instead of dishing up happy talk regarding nuclear disarmament, I'd like to see Miss Wherever stand tall on her stilettos and say, "You know what, I've honestly never given it a thought and have no clue."
Wouldn't that be great? In a world where uninformed opinion is ubiquitous, wouldn't that be a sign of excellent Miss USA-worthy character?
We seem to be obsessed with opinions because we take them to be a marker of individual independence, distinctiveness and reasoned intelligence. Expressing opinions is how we also express our freedom of conscience and flex our political rights. But when we're obliged to have an opinion on everything, all the time, our expressions of conscience are less about independent thinking than about making stuff up.
A 1981 study out of the University of Michigan found that roughly 30% of survey respondents were willing to offer an opinion on a highly obscure piece of legislation if a "no opinion" option wasn't available. The researchers concluded that people "who really have no views on the issues under inquiry " often "simply flip mental coins in order to satisfy the interviewer's expectation."
A similar 1983 study by University of Cincinnati political scientist George Bishop also revealed that roughly 30% of people who are polled will give their considered opinion on an entirely fictitious piece of legislation if not explicitly offered a "response alternative" that "allows them to admit they 'don't know' anything about it.'"
Bishop concluded that "there is little to no relationship between an individual's willingness to admit ignorance and his or her tendency to offer opinions."
Studies like these have led pollsters to realize that "no answer" isn't a missing data point (or a sign of a respondent's moral failure); having no opinion is a perfectly valid position. In fact, a "don't know" option can increase the accuracy of survey findings.
Unfortunately, the culture at large has yet to catch on, and we all seem to be trapped in an opinion rat race. Public opinion polling is a growth industry in the U.S, and whether it's meaningless website "click here" polls or "American Idol," the public is constantly beseeched for opinions.
Almost 2,500 years ago, Socrates was way out ahead on the "no opinion" option. On trial for the equivalent of heresy in Athens, he sparred with a pompous politician over the meaning of wisdom. He won: "I appear to be wiser than he," Socrates wrote, "because I do not fancy I know what I do not know."
Beauty queens — and everyone else — should take a lesson. Especially in America. We have as much of a right to our ignorance and indifference as we do to speak our minds. We're free to say "I don't know."
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