An Opinion About Opinions

These days, we’re all news junkies.

There was one article that I found on CNN; it almost didn’t catch my eye enough for me to click on it. It was a piece on the athlete’s union that Northwestern’s football team is currently trying to establish. You can find it here.

Now the title of this article, the one that caught my eye long enough to click on it, is ‘Students Cry Foul Over Athlete’s Union.’ The title alone, were I not familiar with the situation from other sources, naturally lends itself to the following assumptions: first, that the athletes in question have a union with which they’re working, and students, on the whole, are angry about athletes having a union for whatever reason.

But what does the article actually say?There is no union, and the article doesn’t really show that students are angry about the process of unionization; it says that a market research company called Fluent did a study of 900 students, nationwide over two weeks. Less than one third are in favor of college student athletes unionizing, nearly half say they opposed it. More than half believe that the cost of college will increase because students unionize, and cause greater inequality between student-athletes and non-athletes.

The data don’t show much one way or the other especially considering no matter how well you preform a statistical analysis, there are 21 million college students. Even in that tiny fraction, a majority of 900 college students do not say that they oppose unionization of college sports. A significant fraction of the whole study actually have no opinion. We can count this number to be probably a little less than third, given that less than a third are in favor and less than half oppose. So around 250-275 of this number either didn’t know or had no opinion and were comfortable enough with themselves to say so.

The data do show, however, that the title of the article is sensationalist. It is clearly meant to garner pageviews and incite angry discussion. “Fraction of 900 College Students Out of 21 Million Have an Opinion About College Sports Unionizing” does not carry the same weight.

What is more interesting to me about this article is what it doesn’t ask, and what the data did not or cannot record in any significant way:

Are all these students familiar with the situation? How much do they know about it? Is it right that college athletes are treated the way that they are? How do they imagine that unionization will raise tuition, given that big time college sports, which are the focus of the unionization effort, are largely self-supporting institutions?

Perhaps most important, if they are ignorant of the situation and it does not affect them, should these students have an opinion about it?

This question in particular is not asked often enough. In fact, no one ever seems to ask it.

Opinions are useful things, but the means and ends of those opinions matter. They are part of the process of understanding the world. They allow us to compare what is ideal and what is not.

If we are ignorant, and for this or other reasons our opinions do not serve to enlighten a discussion, what business do we have in possessing them? Why should someone report an opinion, just to say that an opinion is had, not whether it is informed?

I contend that it should not be. An opinion that is uninformed can be right, sure, just as you can guess how a coin will flip because there are a limited number of choices. But this judgement does not serve anyone, least of all its owner.

I suppose this is why I’m a librarian, and not a journalist.

Of course I think if there were more librarians among us we would be better off.

But I admit I am biased in that opinion.

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