American Elephants


Fake News, Real News, and “Opinion” But What IS Opinion? by The Elephant's Child

The rise of opinion is one of the more striking success stories in the history of ideas. “Opinion” is the name for a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not necessarily substantiated by positive knowledge or proof. Opinions, then are distinguished by the strength with which they are held rather than by the authenticity with which their conclusions are demonstrable. …

In the beginning, “opinion” was a synonym for uncertainty—for a notion grounded in personal preference (rather than fact), and hence was thought likely to be the pathway to error. …

When Opinion went public, there was a crucial change in the prestige of all opinions. An individual’s opinion, naturally enough seemed flimsy and unreliable. For it has all the fallibility of that particular person, and was obviously tainted by that person’s ignorance or prejudice. “Public” Opinion, however had quite a different character, being the opinion of nobody in particular, but of everybody in general, its weaknesses were hard to define and its strength was enveloped in an aura of group wisdom. Did it not include the reasoned conclusions of the learned along with the commonsense intuitions of the untutored? Might it not hold the best of all realms of thought or feeling? …

By the late twentieth century there had come into being in the United States something which I will call “Big Opinion.” Just as large-scale organization, concentration of capital, and new technologies brought into being “Big Science,” so it was with the machinery of making, forming, shaping, testing, assessing, and organizing opinion. A whole new technology of polling and sampling became the basis of  prosperous industry. Opinion pollsters formed themselves into professional societies, they produced learned journals, and trade journals. At the same time the new professions of advertising and public relations (drawing every day on the products of this new industry) enlisted some of the best-educated, brightest, and most sophisticated minds in the nation. When opinion measuring and opinion making had become  big business, the power and prestige of Public Opinion had reached a new stage.

These are selected excerpts from the chapter titled “How Opinion Went Public,” in a book called “Democracy and Its Discontents” Reflections on Everyday America” by Daniel J. Boorstin (October 1, 1914 – February 28, 2004) who was an historian at the University of Chicago, and was appointed the twelfth Librarian of the United States Congress in 1975, and served until 1987. He has written many wonderful books, I especially liked three volumes titled “The Americans:” The Americans: The Colonial Experience, The Americans: The National Experience, and The Americans: The Democratic Experience. Look for him at the Library.

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