Fact or Opinion? Who Cares?


Traci Picard, 6/7/2017, Providence, RI

Last weekend I taught a class at Herbstalk on Communications for Herbalists. Two of my favorite subjects, together at last!

At the end of 90 minutes, I asked the group if they had any questions, and boy did they ever.

One audience member, an organic chemist, wanted to know how we express whether or not our words are fact or opinion. He kept coming back to this, over and over, asking but are our words FACT or OPINION!??!?!

And he was trying to make a great point–there is little accountability in alternative healthcare, sometimes a lack of critical thinking and sometimes a real load of hooey wrapped up in a nice package of magical thinking and a colorful label. And, you know, gravity exists.

But my angle here is communications, how to talk about these things.

Maybe we could have talked longer if I didn’t have a train to catch.

Ultimately,  the idea that our words must be either fact or opinion is funny to me. It’s a false binary which implies that those are the 2 options, and only those, as if everything in the universe doesn’t overlap and evolve. As if  real life isn’t a chaotic mess. As if mighty health debates haven’t raged for millennia, as if they won’t continue to rage for the foreseeable future. As if Science has figured out facts, as if Scientists don’t actively seek to destroy each others’ theories. As if this isn’t the point of Science, actually.

As if opinion and intuition are the same, as if magic and magical thinking are the same, as if fact and opinion hold the same weight when approaching a brain tumor as with a minor rash.

I don’t see the way I practice plant medicine* as a fact or opinion-based model at all, actually. I see it as a problem-solving model.

Allow me to define problem-solving, as written in the fabulous Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms and Concepts by Dr. Linda Elder and Dr. Richard Paul:

“Problem-solving: the process of reaching solutions. Whenever a problem cannot be solved formulaically or robotically, critical thinking is required–first, to determine the nature and dimensions of the problem, and then, in light of the first, to determine the considerations, points of view, concepts, theories, data and reasoning relevant to its solution. Extensive practice in independent problem-solving is essential to developing critical thought. Problem-solving is rarely best approached procedurally or as a series of rigidly followed steps. Yet this is precisely how some ‘problem-solving’ schemas are approached. For example, such schemas typically begin ‘state the problem’. But ‘stating the problem’ often entails complex analysis including: considering multiple viewpoints, examining one’s assumptions and articulating the problem in more than one way to reach a clear understanding of the question at issue. Complexities such as these cannot be dealt with formulaically.”

They’re leading teachers and writers on Critical Thinking and analytical theory, not exactly fruitarians in Birkenstocks and nothing else swaying to flute music.

As an herbalist, I am primarily a questioner who guides my collaborator through a process of inquiry, discovering possible solutions together. I’m committed to inquiry as a religion, as a lifelong partner. I see practicing plant medicine as a fundamentally collaborative inquiry-based process which requires us to constantly experiment, observe and communicate.

We are in collaboration with, in relationship with, each other, our community, the plants and our life circumstances.

I am not a self-centric top-down capital-H “Healer” fixing broken people, and I don’t dole out pure fact OR pure opinion at all.

And human beings are ragingly complex animals in complex relationships with ourselves, our environment, each other. We aren’t math problems.

I appreciate evidence, data and studies very, very much. I love skepticism, and I love taking things apart into pieces and studying them, and there is great value in this. I am enormously sympathetic to his question, to someone asking how they can understand herbalism, especially when they notice some of the clearly unethical parts of the alternative health industry.

But then there is our deep and ancient human need for love, magic, mystery. There is a tiny part of us that is stardust and moonlight, elemental and connected, cyclical and unknowable. I prefer to remember this.

So yes, I am all for transparency. Not all opinions are equal, and some are crappy, based mainly on internet “research”, confirmation bias and logical fallacies. Some “facts” exist on poor foundations and have come into being through a series of folly and bias. The outcome of our question depends on the intellectual freedom within which we ask it.

I believe we can keep asking questions. Ask and ask, and let shitty logic reveal itself through the process of inquiry. Make space for failure, for admitting when we are wrong. Let lies and half-truths fall out of herbalism like a badly mended skirt. Let others try and succeed or fail on their own terms. Yes, refute claims that cause harm. But we can let intellectual stagnation be its own private hell.

And in an era where truth may be even less clear than ever, my wish to believe that our lives can be neatly divided into fact and opinion is very real. I wish I could stand up in front of  a class and make a list, and say Yes, my dears, this is true and this is not true. This is good, and this is bad. Do this and all will be well.

But I can’t. I can guarantee nothing, and I don’t claim to,  with one exception. I can promise you with all of my being that I will listen, observe, investigate absolutely anything under the sun in collaboration with you, my community, and that we will do so with an open mind and an ethical lens, as long as I live and breathe.

*Full disclosure: when I do practice, as I am currently focusing more on broader Communications work than seeing new clients but I still care.