How To Have Well-Founded Opinions
99% of conversations on our planet end up like this:
Everyone has one, yet it seems that opinions no longer have value as hardly anyone knows what they are.
This is why I studied the very basics and tried to answer questions like ‘What is an opinion?’ and ‘How do we form one?’.
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What’s An Opinion?
Opinions are judgments, viewpoints, or statements that are not conclusive, which means they don’t solve issues. In fact, opinions approach issues from specific viewpoints and try to understand how they could be solved.
If they were conclusive, they’d be facts.
Facts are true statements.
Scientific facts are objective and verifiable observations.
Opinions are judgments, viewpoints, or statements about specific issues.
This means, for example, that we can’t have an opinion about facts or scientific facts, as they’ve proved to be true. No, opinions are required elsewhere: on those complex issues where facts can’t explain everything.
Here is what Patrick Stokes, professor of Philosophy at the Deakin University, teaches his students on their first day of class:
“The problem with ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for ‘I can say or think whatever I like’ and, by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.”
We won’t get very far if we limit ourselves ‘to say or think what we like’ and feel entitled. Discussing with respect and challenging the opinions of others is what moves us all forward.
Weak vs Strong Opinions
[This section is based on Andrew Luttrell’s article ‘Psychology of Opinions: How Other People’s Opinions Affect Our Own’].
Weak vs Strong: one thing is being pro-Biden; another is to be sure you’re pro-Biden. Two people can have the same overall take on Biden, but one person might be more set in that opinion than the other. Well, that means to have a strong opinion.
A strong opinion is one that:
- influence relevant behaviour or actions;
- remain durable over time and in the face of persuasive messages.
People who hold strong opinions are difficult to persuade, for they’re more sure of their beliefs. They’re solid on what they believe. Another way to say it is that they’re “less ambivalent”.
Ambivalence is what happens when you have both positive and negative reactions to a topic.
The higher the ambivalence of the opinion owners, the more likely they will be persuaded by messages related to the topic (the weaker their opinions).
Here are some elements responsible for increasing the strength of our opinions:
amount of relevant knowledge held;
amount of thoughts and effort invested in it;
connections with self-concepts;
The last one, social connections, suggests that the people around us profoundly affect the strength of our opinions. When they agree with us, our opinions get stronger; when they disagree, weaker. Such an influence is particularly effective from family and friends - people we care about. An exception to this dynamic happens when we want to establish our uniqueness and instinctively feel more confidently in our opinions with most people against us.
How To Form An Opinion
It is hard to understand the arguments on a certain topic, verify the evidence that supports them, research, analyse, and avoid shortcuts. To have a valid opinion is hard work.
For this reason, I discovered it’s helpful to follow a straightforward process that ensures we do everything in our power to achieve a valuable result. Here’s how to form an opinion in 5 steps:
Understand if the topic is worth the effort.
Adopt the mindset of a student.
Know the arguments.
Use the evidence to form a position.
Revisit and revise your position.
1 - Understand if the topic is worth the effort
Not all arguments are worth your time. It’s such an effort and commitment to have a solid opinion that you should choose wisely what really matters to you. There are millions of topics in the world, and you won’t have a strong opinion on every one of them; it’s simply not possible, and it’s absolutely fine.
“Opinions are only important in relation to your values, your work, your goals, and the world around you. We don’t always need to have a clear opinion on every single topic, even if we want one.”
It’s indeed adequate to remain an observer of most of what happens around us and focus on a few specific topics we care about. From another angle, this is an efficient and healthy behaviour that prevents us from being inadequate on many arguments simultaneously.
Also, consider that you can potentially go through the entire process of building an opinion on a specific matter only to realise you don’t know what to believe about it. Your investment in the research of a position is not a sure bet. Keep it in mind.
2 - Adopt the mindset of a student
The first stage in forming a solid opinion is studying the bloody issue: not that easy in practice.
We should approach this process by mentally stepping outside of all the emotions and politics that surround our selected topic and just focusing on its raw substance — which includes answering:
Why does the topic matters in the first place?
Which issues are driving the topic right now?
What is each side arguing?
How is each side responding to the other’s arguments?
Even if it’s tempting, we shouldn’t step inside the debate. In this phase of the process, we’re not ready to participate. Besides, the student’s position — listener and learner — is a position of great power. It’s a luxury!
While the participants in a conversation have certain interests — to look good, to win, to be “right” — the student is free to learn from those interests, to become an expert without picking a side.
Avoid identifying with any position and just appreciate the arguments on both sides — your priority is to understand the topic as deeply as possible.
Very few people have the humility and patience to be students before participating and contributing. The reason (I guess) is that it’s way more challenging to be a student than to start shooting arguments.
Being a student means admitting to — or choosing — some degree of ignorance. It means being uncertain in your opinions while you study an issue. And that uncertainty, for many people, is quite scary.
(…) But it’s precisely the student mentality that leads to reliable thinking. Ironically, we need to sit with the discomfort of being students to really enjoy the satisfaction of being experts. We need to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing what we think — of struggling to figure out what we believe — to arrive at an opinion that’s actually trustworthy.
It’s hard to face uncertainty, but it’s worth the effort. Would you follow an uncertain path and grow or be sure of having questionable opinions?
3 - Know the arguments
In this phase, you turn the student mentality upon specific arguments about the debated topic. The scope is to understand each argument and document every piece of evidence that sustains them. It’s a work of analysis. Journalists, researchers, politicians, academics, and intellectuals usually follow this path to understand an argument. You’re a writer and surely know what I’m talking about.
The process includes:
identifying the arguments and counter-arguments that both sides hold;
identifying every piece of evidence that supports or disproves those arguments;
understanding and confirming every piece of evidence.
The last point is crucial as one invalid piece of evidence can nullify an entire argument. Be careful and just remember that data is the foundation of the whole structure of an opinion. DATA.
At this stage, you begin to grasp all the arguments and facts. When you’ve collected them all, try to answer:
Do the evidence truly supports the claims?
Are the arguments persuasive?
Do the arguments lead convincingly to the conclusion?
Where are their weaknesses?
(Pro hint: in this analysis could be decisive to understand and spot logical fallacies).
4 - Use the evidence to form a position
An informed opinion is developed through an honest and thorough analysis of arguments and evidence.
You’ll notice that it is pretty unlikely for a single position to be entirely true (in a debate, for example). It’s because many topics are so complicated. In fact, it’s common for people to come out with an appreciation for the merits of both sides.
Just apply the golden rule: study every side and point of view, no matter how far from you. This is the best way to form and especially protect your opinion.
“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”
— Charlie Munger
5 - Revisit and revise your position
Your evidence can become obsolete, invalid, not relevant.
Revise your opinion over time to avoid the risk of holding one which is not valid anymore. Things change, facts can be confuted, maybe new evidence occurred — your opinions aren’t different!
Also, consider that being quick at changing your opinion or belief can be critical. It helps to avoid mistakes or to catch new opportunities. Any change still requires the same attention and care as we’ve been talking about so far.
“When we prioritize the process of forming good opinions over the content of those opinions, then we position ourselves to have the most effective and meaningful views over the course of our lives. We avoid the tendency to shut down, stagnate, or become out of touch. We stay alive to our own intellects and to the ever-changing world around us. We choose ourselves over our concepts, our minds over other people’s opinions.”
See you next Wednesday,