The Principle of No Opinion

Zen In Nature

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something.”

— Attributed to Winston Churchill

“I know that I know nothing.”

— Socrates

Some of my opinions are wrong. I know this because of how often I’ve been forced to revise them. My present opinions bear only a family resemblance to those of five years ago (a time when I was far more confident about them than today) yet I don’t feel particularly compelled to change them. Well, you think, that’s very pig-headed of him. My dilemma, and probably yours too, is that I don‘t actually know which opinions are wrong until something comes along to change them, often in a way that costs a lot of money or embarrassment. Even though we know our opinions are subject to error, many of us feel compelled to take sides on every issue, from sweeping political ideologies to who should get the last cookie (hint, it’s always me). Western — especially US — society thrives on debate, and often pressures us to take poorly-thought-out stands just so we can stay in the conversation. I assert that there is wisdom in resisting this pressure, in refusing to commit ourselves to positions where experience and reason cannot back us up. This is the Principle of No Opinion.

Opinion Defined

Let’s start with what an opinion is. Merriam Webster defines it as “a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter,” which dovetails nicely with our intuition. An opinion is essentially a set of ideas about how something works, or at least how it should work. While holding No Opinion on a topic at first feels uncomfortable — think of the last time you refused to take sides in an argument, or participate in the communal political rant at a family gathering — remaining open-minded sets us free. Very often, people allow an opinion to creep into their identity, and become extremely defensive when something challenges it. Think of the vitriol spilled over discussions of which presidential candidate should be allowed to raise our taxes next, despite the lack of effect which either outcome will have on most people. By holding No Opinion, we can avoid an emotional reaction and are free to gather all the evidence from both sides, cherry-pick their best arguments, and build a potentially new framework out of them. Then we can take on the role of mediator, helping the opposing sides understand one another’s views, and if we’re especially lucky, even ending the argument.

A well-thought-opinion should be the result of either experience or reason, collectively called “evidence” — anything else is the adult equivalent of “because I said so.” Experience teaches us how things work through repeated observation, while reason allows us to use pre-established conclusions to derive new ones. The experience need not be our own — much of what we learn as children comes from a book — but it should at least be compelling. Even ethics can be derived from evidence if we assume a set of axioms, either basic principles like the “greater good” or, as the subjectivists assert, the fact that some things simply feel right.

Evidence makes it easy to determine when we can and should form opinions. We can divide topics into three rough categories: those about which you are the expert, those about which somebody is the expert, and those about which nobody is the expert. An expert here does not mean the media pundit your parents swear at on the news, but rather the person in any topic area with the best access to evidence, whose opinion is most probably approximately correct. The Principle of No Opinion states that we should hold the minimum strength of opinion still compatible with making decisions, given the available evidence. We will see that the category of topic has a great influence on this minimum strength, and if we are forced to take sides, how we are best to handle it.

When You Are The Expert

There will always be some topics in which you know the most. As a child, this starts with your internal state — nobody is more qualified to answer “how do you feel” or “how hungry are you” than yourself. As you grow, you gain experience, learning about your environment and gaining experience in areas where you have time or interest. Later, you are educated, and acquire the theoretical bedrock on which to base future expertise. By the time you’ve worked for a couple years or graduated college, there will be many areas in which you simply know more than your immediate peers. In these areas, you are the (local) expert.

When you are the expert, it is important to remember that expertise is relative. You may be your company’s #1 authority on lathe operation or spreadsheet design, but odds are somebody out there in the world knows even more. Thus, it’s good to be confident in your ideas while interacting with your peers, but you should also hold them at arms’ length. The more you identify with your expert opinions, the more evidence which contradicts them feels like an attack on the self. The resultant defensiveness immediately kills any dialogue, both preventing you from considering new and important evidence, and souring the interaction for everyone. To avoid defensiveness, you should separate your opinions from your identity, and constantly engage in the counterintuitive practice of trying to prove yourself wrong. An opinion which is constantly challenged and updated will move ever closer to truth.

Finally, some opinions are simply axiomatic, the basis for everything else we know. We call such opinions facts. These are things like the validity of mathematics and logic, or the reality of our senses — the very tools of determining truth. (I would also argue that the validity of Hawaiian pizza goes here, but that’s for another time.) These principles are special, as to debate them generates a Catch-22 — you need to assume their validity to settle the debate. When these principles are questioned, stick to your guns, as the only alternative is nihilism and epistemic subjectivism. In other words, nonsense.

When Somebody Is The Expert

Nobody can be the best, the smartest, or the most experienced in everything. There will always be areas in which we have to accept our own limitations and either defer to the expertise of another or take our own impressions with a grain of salt.

It’s often tempting to assume that an expert is delusional or wrong, especially when his or her opinions differs markedly from our own. In this case, it’s worth first checking whether the topic falls into this category or that of topics which have no experts (see below). Otherwise, we should confirm that our take on the topic does in fact derive from evidence, and that there’s some reason to believe that our evidence, or at least our argument, is superior to that of the expert. It’s quite possible our opinion is the result of an old, poorly founded belief which has quietly slipped into our identity and made us defensive. In that case, we should calm down and try to evaluate both beliefs objectively.

In some cases, it’s either not clear who is the expert, or we have a robust reason to believe that the expert is wrong. In this case, we can do one of two things: if we don’t have the bandwidth to really think the issue through, we can claim it as an area of No Opinion. If nobody can come to agreement, every opinion is suspect. If we do have the bandwidth — or if the issue is important — we should strive to really understand the ideas of all sides before choosing one. Indeed, we cannot dismiss the opinion of an adversary until we understand it in the same depth he or she does, and why he or she believes it. This is the mistake which riddles most political debates; it is easier to assume that the opponent is stupid, malicious, or a lizard person than to accept that their view might have validity as well. Once again, separating opinion from identity is crucial here. If we stay focused on an objective search for truth, we may find another opinion which actually makes more sense, and if not, at least we know ours is bulletproof.

When Nobody Is The Expert

Some phenomena are so complex that no amount of experience or reason can allow us to understand them. Think of the randomness of history, geopolitics, or the stock market. Those who claim expertise in these areas bear a colossal burden of proof, as frequent experiments have shown that simple algorithms or the basic laws of probability can produce the same outcomes. For a long and comprehensive discussion of this phenomenon, read Taleb’s Incerto series, or Kahneman’s Thinking Fast And Slow.

There is a simple test to determine whether a topic is subject to expertise. It must be regular enough for noticeable patterns to emerge, and there must be some expert who has been exposed enough to figure them out. For instance, while thousands of dedicated analysts remain constantly exposed to the stock market, it is so random that none can really claim to understand its short-term fluctuations. That’s why analysts are notoriously better at explaining previous motions than predicting future ones. On the flip side, living on other planets may be completely open for experience, but aside from a few tenured academics, nobody alive has actually done it, and we’re stuck with conjecture. Failure in either area means that any opinion is about as good as any other, and all should be treated with suspicion.

When faced with an expertise-resistant topic, you should do your best to express No Opinion, especially if there are consequences to being wrong. Anyone who expresses a strong opinion in such an area is not worth debating, as by definition there can be no compelling evidence. These topics are best treated as random.

When You Have To Choose

Unfortunately, the polarized nature of the world means that we frequently have to take sides even when we aren’t strictly qualified. The issue might have direct import for ourselves or those we love, or we have to make a choice in order to avoid having one thrust upon us. Every day we leave our homes we navigate a world full of uncertainty. How does the Principle of No Opinion apply when we have to make decisions?

First, it’s important to note that the strength of our opinions should be directly proportional to two things: how much it matters and which of the three above categories it falls into. If the opinion doesn’t matter — i.e. only trivial decisions based on it need be made — then strength of opinion is a matter of preference. If it matters a great deal, having the greatest possible assurance in your beliefs is crucial.

When the opinion matters, its strength (and the evidence you build to prove it) should be based on topic category, with the strongest in You Are Expert, middling in the Somebody Is Expert, and weak to nonexistent in Nobody Is Expert. The stronger the opinion, the more confident you can be that decisions made upon it will have the intended outcomes.

As an opinion becomes weaker, the uncertainty surrounding the outcomes of decisions grows larger. At the Nobody Is Expert category, outcomes nearly cease to depend on the decision, leaving us prey to pure chance. This is where hedging comes in. A hedge is a form of insurance against bad decisions, something designed to pay off if an outcome isn’t what we predicted. In situations of weak opinion, we should engage in hedging, with ever weaker opinions generating ever stronger hedges. In the stock market, it helps to buy a cheap bet that the market will crash, the value of which will increase enough in the event of such a crash to shield us from the loss of our other assets. In politics, the less we know about our allies’ intentions, the more allies we should have, so one hidden bad actor doesn’t leave us reeling. In pizza, having a can of pineapple in the fridge offsets the chance your friends are idiots. Like car insurance, hedges may seem like a waste 99% of the time, but when we encounter that 1%, we’ll be very glad we have them.

Conclusion

We often find ourselves prompted to take sides in issues where we shouldn’t. Either we don’t have the expertise, the issue is irrelevant to our lives, or there’s simply too much randomness for any opinion to have much value. In such situations, there is a great advantage to expressing No Opinion. We can learn all sides without becoming defensive, and choose for ourselves if we’d like to walk away with a different outlook. Finally, those friends and family who compel us to take positions in areas where the above apply are usually upset because our failure to agree with them feels like an attack not on their opinions, but on themselves. We can choose either to agree to avoid conflict, hedging by protesting our lack of qualification, or we can try to show why these issues are more complicated than they seem. Either way, it’s better to express no opinion at all than to hold one fiercely and be wrong.

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Mac Scanlan

Mac Scanlan

Tech explorer, language enthusiast, ice cream proselyte. Avid walker of urban trails.