What is the difference between scientific research and conclusions derived from value assessments or from opinion?
There is an enormous distinction to be made between scholarship and opinion, or between scholarship and the formation of positions based primarily upon one’s personal values. The links below are intended to demonstrate the difference between knowledge attained through scientific study, and opinions or assessments based wholly or in part upon one’s personal ideological inclinations.
When one reads a column in the opinion-editorial pages of a newspaper, one is reading exactly that: the opinions of individual columnists. Many of these columnists are well-educated, intelligent, thoughtful individuals, whose articles may enlighten us, or anger us depending upon one’s perspective. What these “op-ed” pieces are not, however, is scientific. They may reflect decades of observations of particular issues or subjects, but they are not scientific in that they do not allow for others to retrace their steps and to observe the same events or phenomena.
Science, or scholarship, is a meticulous process involving first-hand experimentation and observations, with the processes employed recorded for others to review. Those records require the use of citations, or footnotes, that allow other scholars or scientists to conduct the same experiment, or view the same data, and arrive at their own conclusions. That is the purpose of footnotes: they inform the reader regarding the sources of information used by the scientist or scholar. Scholarship, by definition, is conducted in such a way that others can refer to one’s citations, review those articles or data, or conduct similar interviews and experiments to determine the validity of the original scholar or scientist’s work.
Opinions and value assessments are just that: statements or articles that reflect one’s beliefs, sometimes irrespective of evidence that either supports those views or, conversely, that refutes them. Science is grounded in objective fact, although interpretations of scientific data can legitimately differ. We can determine with scientific precision that ocean temperatures or salinity levels are changing, but we may not agree on the causes. Debates regarding legalization of marijuana are as likely to reflect values as they are scientific data regarding the effects of marijuana use on the brain and whether society would be adversely affected by legalization.
Pretty much everyone has opinions on many subjects. The degree to which those opinions or conclusions are the product of scientific research or merely reflect one’s predisposition toward a particular perspective, however, can be substantial. It is up to the individual student or reader to understand the distinction between science and opinion.