Friday, May 25, 2012

In My Opinion

In response to That's Impossible, Sree wrote:

I've taken to mentally prefixing/appending "in my opinion" or "as far as I know" to ANYTHING anybody says. For instance (in today's news):

  • Currently, "as far as we know", there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, which steadily robs patients of their memory, followed by full-blown dementia.
  • "In my opinion", the comparatively laissez-faire attitude of African parents produces admirable resilience among their children.
As I read Sree's comment yesterday, I thought, "Yes, that's it exactly. In the end, all we ever really have is opinion, even when it seems factual."

However, standing in the shower this morning, I launched into a completely tangential line of thought.  As I thought about the words "in my opinion" and "as far as we know", I was taken back to discussions with people who specialize in FDA-approved communications regarding experimental drugs, devices and methods.

In order to ensure that companies marketing and developing medications and medical devices don't make false claims about the efficacy or safety of their products, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides rules that govern what can and can't be said, what must be said, and how one must say it.  The goal is to make it easy for someone to clearly understand the potential benefits and pitfalls of using a medication or device

Companies producing these products aren't particularly fond of the rules. After all, if you're trying to sell a cure for acne, telling people that a potential side-effect is her right big-toe falling off can impede sales.

But don't you worry. These companies have lots and lots of money. As soon as a rule/guideline is put into place, hoards of highly-paid experts specializing in medical law and marketing spring into action. Before you can say, "My toe could what?", they develop a clever way of stating the possibility without you ever having heard it. At best, you recall something about 'toes', but it's a phantom recollection of something you doubt was ever said.

My grandmother would have said, "They got the letter of the law, but not its spirit."

As I considered this along with Sree's comment, it occurred to me that Sree might be like the FDA providing a clear way of dealing with communications and understanding. However, it also occurred to me that one might easily implement the letter of "in my opinion" and "as far as we know" without ever really getting the spirit of it.

For example, a news reporter may be cautioned by the legal department to preface every claim or statement of fact with "as far as we know" or "in my opinion". He might use these phrases only as a matter of course believing fully that what he's saying is "true". His words say, "this is pure speculation", but everything else about his delivery says, "this is the god's honest truth." He may come to use the phrases so frequently that listeners filter them out completely hearing what he says as nothing but the facts. What starts out as a well-intended guideline becomes nothing more than window-dressing.

If this were the case only with news reporters and FDA marketeers.

It's not.

We all seem to have this uncanny capacity to absorb mantras and rudiments in a way that inoculates us to them. For example, I know many people who've made being happy important. It's not that they've made happiness a priority; instead, they've come to want others to see them as happy. When you ask them how they're doing, what comes out of their mouths is akin to a pharmaceutical ad. It's got all the right words, but it doesn't feel right.

We do this with pretty much anything. We learn the lingo. We use it. Before you know it we each believe that what we're saying accurately reflects what we're doing or how we're feeling.

It doesn't.

At least, not entirely.

I learn it's socially acceptable to qualify my strongly held beliefs with "in my opinion." So, rather than recognizing my belief as an opinion, I just sprinkle the mantra "in my opinion" on any statement I make.

I learn that it's important to project a positive attitude towards my kids. I begin complimenting them on every action, regardless of how well they do.  My kids start believing that either I'm blind or doing things well just isn't that important.

I'm instructed that it's not particularly useful to tell someone that what he's saying is bullshit. I nod and smile, but my nose still twitches.

Letter or spirit? Hmmm...

Happy Friday,

1 comment:

  1. Tef: I think we're back to the line between "I think it is", and "it is"; basically, between beliefs and Truth. I imagine a 'conscious zone' holding beliefs that I'm aware I'm holding and that I have the ability to drop, and the zone outside consisting of beliefs I have completely bought, that are a part of 'me'. Personal growth could be considered as expanding one's 'conscious zone' - becoming aware of beliefs hitherto considered personal Truths.

    As for letter vs spirit of the law, I'm reminded of something I heard a businessman once say: "you can fool your wife occasionally, you can fool your co-workers about half the time, but you can fool yourself 100% of the time!". I know we don't turn our BS-detectors on ourselves very often.


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