The Cracker Barrel: Opinions and truth

Opinion, by definition, means a view, judgment or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter.

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One of our most cherished national notions is the belief that we are each entitled to our own opinion.

It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Everything from the threat of global warming to the effectiveness of wearing face masks to the value of posting on Facebook is rightful grist for our opinion mills. Each day millions of people make millions of statements about topics from AIDS to Zoroastrianism, confident of their right to speak out about anything that might cross their minds.

In the main, this is good. Certainly the freedom of self-expression is preferable to constraints upon that freedom. The right to free speech is fundamental to our way of life.

But there is a latent danger in our love of self-expression; the danger of confusing opinion with truth.

Opinion, by definition, means a view, judgment or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter. Presumably we believe our opinions to be “true” - by which we mean they accurately represent the way things are.


Unfortunately, our opinions are not always flawless. If we think of opinions as mental road maps, we can readily see how they can lead us awry. If the maps correspond with reality, we can negotiate our way through a given subject with confidence and ease. But if our interior charts are based on incomplete or erroneous information, we can quickly wander quite a distance off the path of truth.

It’s popular nowadays to regard truth as being relative. In certain respects, it is. It is relative to each of us, in the way we relate to it. If we have little respect for truth, we’re apt to relate to it rather casually, distorting it when it makes us uncomfortable or hinders our desires, embracing it when it happens to correspond with our assumptions.

But the conviction that truth is relative can lead us into a swamp of personal confusion, wherein we come to believe that all ideas, all values, all teachings are equal, or equally questionable.

Truth, it seems to me, is more than anything a way of making sense of the world, of respecting things-as-they-are, whether seen or unseen. Over the centuries certain patterns of action and consequence have emerged - patterns that we disregard or deny at our peril.

It is in the nature of truth that falsity serves it as surely as honesty does, in that (given enough time) falsity will usually be exposed for what it is, thus conferring even greater clarity to the truth.

We are free, in other words, to speak and to act with little or no regard for truth, free to assert that our opinions are as good as anyone’s. But our lies, our ignorance, our deceptions will sooner or later be found wanting, if by no one other than ourselves.

Then the truths - the hard-won insights into what works and what doesn’t - will emerge into view as the bedrock they are. We will learn that they abide, and that if we ignore them, we will only end up smashing ourselves to bits against their obduracy.

We each have the right to our opinions. But if we respect truth, we also have the responsibility of seeing to it that our opinions are as accurate as possible, and to revise them when they’re not. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it many years ago, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”


Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

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