March 01, 2016

How We Know: Opinions and Assumptions vs. Empirical Reality

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you heard people say that they know what causes something or they know why some thing happened? We all do this; it's one of the ways, we make sense of the world around us. We generalize about what we see, based on our experience and on previous knowledge that we remember.

Generalizing is how we understand what we encounter. When we see something new, we evaluate what it might be based on how it looks and how people might be using it.

My favorite example of this is a podium or lectern. When you first saw one, did you know what it was? Did you know how it was used? If it was in an empty room, perhaps not, although you might notice the angled top, how it was placed in the room relative to other things like chairs or desks. If someone uses it, then you have more information to figure that out.

We generalize about people when we encounter them; we often make many assumptions about them, based on their appearance that may or may not convey in accurate information about them. We also do this when encountering new situations.

"Gaydar" is a good example of this. Gaydar, or gay radar, is the ability to look at a person and presume that they are gay or lesbian. Some may think their gaydar is accurate, but can you really tell the sexual orientation of someone just by looking at them? Not always. If they are wearing a t-shirt that says they are gay, does that mean they are? Not necessarily, they may just like the shirt or enjoy getting reactions from people.

Another example of the limits of generalizing is race/ethnicity. Can we always tell someone's race or ethnicity just by looking at them? No. We can guess, based on what we think we know, but we are not always accurate.

So, we walk through our lives generalizing (and over-generalizing, also known as stereotyping) so that we know what to do when we encounter new things or people. We have those experiences and that builds our knowledge and experience base.

By the way, confirmation bias refers to the phenomenon of seeing only what confirms what we think we know; we confirm our biases by perceiving only those things that align with our viewpoint and thus reinforce our opinions.

Opinions are personal judgments about what's what, and these opinions are wholly different from actual knowledge. Our opinions are not knowledge about how the world works; they are our judgments about how we think the world works.

I've been hearing a lot of people conversing and saying with conviction that one thing is related to something else or that something someone said is how it is. These statements are often based on assumptions, which further cements their opinions about people and situations. 

For example, those who think that all Muslims are to blame for all terrorism are more likely to perceive anyone that "looks" Muslim (whatever that means) as dangerous, and they then act to avoid those people. This can result in people being expelled from aircraft because someone is uncomfortable about their presence.

So, assumptions and opinions seem to rule our reality and perceptions unless we stop and analyze those preconceptions and generalizations that have been built over time and selective perception.

Science gives us the tools to see more accurately. By systematically measuring empirical reality through the scientific method, we have the potential to better understand the world.

Our own assumptions and opinions, based on our experiences and prior knowledge, may not adequately explain the world, nor may it even explain something that happens in our lives.  

This is why science is so important. Having a tool, like the scientific method, that can allow us to gain better accurate understandings of how things work on this plane of existence is key for making good decisions.

In an election year, knowing accurate information is important. We can look to what candidates say and assess whether they are sharing actual knowledge (which should be backed up by empirical research) or opinions (which has no basis or evidence). Sites like and typically use good sources for their fact checks of political issues.

So, when people and society are a subject of study, science has a lot to deal with in terms of reducing potential bias. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, "In science, when human beings enter the equation, that's when things go nonlinear. That's why physics is easy and sociology is hard." A little trivia for you: Dr. deGrasse Tyson's father is a sociologist.


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