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Why we need opinion sections, even with the occasional bad take

“Do we really need opinion sections?” This is a question I ask myself on a biweekly basis when I sit down to write my column contributions for The Daily Princetonian. I also ask myself this question when reading other op-eds from both the ‘Prince’ and national media outlets. Occasionally, I will see a column so poorly written, or advocating for such a ridiculous or heinous idea, that I begin to wonder if it would have been better had this piece not been published.

Nonetheless, even with all the flaws that I believe are inherent to some opinion sections, I still believe they are essential components of any media organization, be it the ‘Prince’ or the Times.

A common critique of columnists is that they pen too many articles with little or tangential relevance to the real world, beyond certain elitist bubbles. Why should you care what a random writer at a newspaper thinks about an issue that is of no interest to you? This is an entirely fair complaint. I propose a solution: if you sincerely believe that a paper is publishing opinion pieces about inconsequential topics, then you should vote with your wallet and not purchase the paper. Don’t click on its articles if it is publishing what you believe to be low- quality material.

This could push outlets to seek out more engaging topics for their opinion writers. Yet this actionable solution only applies to opinion sections that homogeneously push out intellectually soporific content. It may very well be the case that a paper publishes columns on subjects you find interesting. What may be some complaints in this situation?

One could argue that while yes, opinion sections often cover engaging topics, columnists frequently lack authority to write on the issues. It can be incredibly frustrating to read a column from someone who has a poor understanding of the topic at hand. 

Such columns are often riddled with logical fallacies and factual errors. Yet, if we apply too high a journalistic standard to everyone, we would doom our ability to interact with the world around us.

Imagine, for example, if Congress operated with this mentality. Only astrophysicists would be able to vote on legislation regarding NASA, and only a general with decades of experience would be able to make choices regarding the appropriation of funds to the military.

Such a system would not work. Similarly, voters have to make choices on multifaceted topics, likely with little to no experience in foreign policy, healthcare, law, economics, etc. Instead of looking for someone’s qualifications — which frequently results in the “argument from authority” fallacy — we should simply examine the soundness of the opinion a columnist expresses, including the quality of the evidence provided.

Given the ease of accessing information today, acquiring evidence should be relatively easy for a columnist even if they are not an expert in a field. If a columnist’s argument is sound, and they provide ample evidence for their opinion, then any lack of qualification is rendered moot.

Whether an argument is well-reasoned, however, should not be the only criterion for publication. It will come as a surprise to no one that columnists sometimes have bad or even harmful takes. I am sure most of us can recall a time when someone expressed an opinion so vile or absurd that we wondered why the editors of a paper even allowed its publication.

In these situations it is best to think of the rainbow that comes after the rain. The swift backlash and condemnation that arise after people collectively conclude that a certain opinion is simply unworthy of further consideration actually helps us to reaffirm our distaste for it.

It creates discussion on why the opinion is so ridiculous in the first place. Bad opinion pieces can unite us against bad ideas. Getting rid of opinion sections just to stop the periodic publication of subpar columns negates the benefit of uniting against ideas we condemn. 

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Moreover, exposure to contrasting ideas will force you to sharpen your rebuttals and allow you to become better skilled at defending your own positions. Ultimately, dealing with these articles is a tough but necessary exercise if you want to succeed in the public sphere.

Opinion sections can get incredibly obnoxious, especially when columnists themselves buy into the “argument from authority” fallacy and treat their own words as gospel simply because they are printed on a piece of paper. Instead of letting this bother you the next time you read a column that grinds your gears, try to think of the benefits that come from its publication. Sometimes the responses to an article that occur around dinner tables or in a dining hall can be far more important than the unfounded opinion spewed out by a columnist.

Hunter Campbell is a junior from East Arlington, Vt. He can be reached at