My opinion on opinion

I love grey colour, I hate cats, democracy is bad, eating animals is okay

These all are opinions sorted in controversial order. But what are opinions? How can someone justify eating animals? To understand, let's set up the boundaries on certain words that are often used interchangeably

  1. Facts
  2. Perspective
  3. Opinion
  4. Belief

Facts

Axioms. Statements that are verifiable. Like Barack Obama was the first black president of the US. Einstein published the theory of relativity in 1916. Facts in isolation (without context) are mostly useless, good for trivia quizzes and few competitive exams.

Perspective

This one is tricky and relative. You can't have perspective in isolation like facts. Earth is flat, says ant. Earth is a sphere, say most humans. Earth is pear-shaped, says astronaut. All are valid because of the different perspectives. Perspective helps us in building opinions (which we will discuss in detail).

Opinion

This is the add-on layer built on top of perspective. We mix some unique attributes like past experiences and conclusions to form opinions.

Opinion is the judgement passed by individual after collecting facts and building perspective on it.

Nuclear energy is the only scalable solution for our energy demands. That's an opinion.

Belief  

This is a whole new territory. It's similar to a declaration (like Insert-Your-Religion is superior) but based on morality, value and principles. Beliefs are always strong. You can't have a logical debate in this region. Rational words lose their power in the land of belief.

"If you could reason with religious people there would be no religious people." - House MD

Belief is a powerful tool at the time of crisis since they don't need a logical reason to exist. They act as great supportive stimuli.

Convincing a jury involves all these stages. The lawyers on both sides have belief in their clients. Lawyers represent selective facts in front of the jury to strengthen their client's perspective. Finally, the majority of the jury form the opinion and reach the verdict.


Wrong Categorisation

These definitions only work if you drop statements into correct buckets. If done wrong it creates a lot of issues, which usually happen all the time.

Saying Earth is flat and labelling it as fact upset the scientific community since they care about the Fact bucket and feel bad when someone pollutes it.

Sometimes we confuse cultural beliefs like what to eat (vegetarian vs non-vegetarian), wear (western vs eastern) or say (most social taboo) as opinions. We believe ourselves to be rational so this behaviour becomes difficult to explain if we put them in the belief bucket. So we craft reasons and label them as opinions.  

News by definition should broadcast facts but facts are boring. The whole objective of news was not to inform but to induce negative emotions like fear, hate to make people stick (evolution's fav child was negativity to optimize survival). The next natural iteration was to add perspective to the news. Evaluating the situation from all angles without inducing bias to one. What's next? You start giving opinions, commit to a side and defend (it's also natural to do so when the same side is taken by sponsors running the media channel). The problem is, most of us think these are perspectives but actually news channels end up preaching the agenda of the sponsoring group.  

Another example is gender (Male, Female), which is categorised in the fact bucket. The identification is done based on certain biological features. The whole debate now is, can we label gender as an opinion where the biological features may not match with the person's opinion.  

Why only certain opinions are uncomfortable?


Safe Opinion

Repeat what works is the tagline of the evolution. Xiaomi is not the only one copying design language from Apple. Mimicking is one of the best tricks of progress.

Insect dressed as a leaf in evolution's fancy dress competition (guess who won)

Humans copied this chapter of evolution and applied it to opinions too. Evolution doesn't prioritise independent thinkers.

When consensus is the yielding power then opinions optimise on crowd-pleasing axis.

The survival advantage of a group is much higher than an individual. Being an outcast in history was not a privilege but a death sentence. Our survival was dependent on the collective knowledge of a tribe, not a single rebellious independent thinker.

I call it safe opinions (favoured by evolution). You won't land in controversy by saying it aloud. These opinions originated to satisfy the socially accepted values and norms (which change every decade). Gender equality would be today's safe opinion. Safe opinions are always normal (read approved by society). Safe opinions are memorised words of others.

"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." - Oscar Wilde

History is full of such instances, like P is silent in psychology but not in paint. What's the rule behind this rule? It's the voice of the masses. If suddenly everyone agrees that no word should be silent anymore in English then there's no logical rule that can challenge this notion. When you correct someone's pronunciation, you are just asking them to speak the language that majority people agreed upon in past.

How do we form opinions?


Opinion - Behind the scenes

What it actually takes to form an opinion? It involves deep thinking which is an exhaustive operation. Thinking means focusing and defocusing on an idea long enough. In this process, you deconstruct the society consensus too. You don't only mirror the voice of the public but you find out how this voice was formed.

Whenever we think about something, the first thought is never ours. It's always someone else. Because we believe we are thinking, but in actuality, we are just doing information retrieval (like harddisk head fetching relevant block that's already stored). This conventional wisdom could come from our experience or constructed from a similar (not same) circumstance or simply borrowed from the crowd. Since we are good at mirroring, this opinion also gets inherited from the famous personalities we trust. Elon Musk tweets about Doge Coin, it must be a good investment.

This is the recipe for a safe opinion and most of our opinions are formed like this.

"It's easy to agree when no one is thinking."  - Shane Parrish

If you spend more time with the idea, you start deconstructing it. Like doing reverse engineering of the inherited opinion. Most likely you will start running experiments in your brain's sandbox, like thought experiments. You set up a few conditions and observe what happens, are there any conditions where the safe opinion doesn't make any sense. The idea is to attack the thought from all directions and see why it would or wouldn't stand. Expose the hidden assumptions, making space for unknown unknowns. Outlast the impulse to finish the job.

The objective is to either strip the assumptions to expose facts or to vary the weightage of certain assumptions.

Do multiple iterations of this process and you will form strong opinions. This is the secret playground of innovation (and also conspiracy theories, we will explore this part in a bit). Strong opinions look like beliefs from distance.

You will never welcome strangers into your home. The weightage to the assumption that we don't trust strangers is high but when Brain Chesky thought about this, he gave low weightage to this assumption. Airbnb is now $100+ billion opinion.

Building a strong opinion is like a neural network trained on future data. Where the hidden layer weight is biased more on factors that are not yet socially accepted. You can't train this network on social data. Like a person in the early 2000s raising voice on data protection or the benefits of decentralised apps. Not all strong opinions are not guaranteed to work in future like bets.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Since building a strong opinion is a hard process, we will have a strong opinion for a few topics only. For the rest, we mostly go with safe opinions.

How do opinions survive the passage of time? How do opinions age?


Opinion vs Time

The seed of the first opinion on any topic is generally the social consensus. It's the most famous thought and you will rarely land on the problem with it. As you will spend more time with the topic (generally a question), the opinion formed may move towards less famous areas (right). This is where strong opinion lives that breed innovation.  The bet area.

This whole situation is relative to time and culture.

When Galileo proposed the theory that Earth revolved around the Sun in his book, it was not labelled into fact bucket. Instead, Galileo's book was banned and he was jailed. Why? Because Galileo challenged the Belief bucket established by the Chruch, which said the sun revolves around the earth. He had a strong opinion (based on the observations) which was not acceptable by society.

Strong opinion of yesterday will be accepted as a fact today.

Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence, was a brilliant scientist. His Turing test is still used today to determine whether or not a computer is capable of thinking like a human being. In other words, he coded the intelligence test for computers to check how close they are to humans. Alan Turing's Enigma code-breaking machines saved 21 million lives. That's like saving all the humans of Sweden, twice.

How would you treat such a legendary scientist? By making him a celebrity, an influential war hero who would be respected. Alan Turing took his own life at the age of 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide. Why? The government found out that Alan Turing was homosexual, which as per the government's opinion is a crime in 1950s. It's still a crime in 60+ countries.

Another example - David Letterman making fun of Bill Gates for saying internet is the new thing in 1995.  

"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why do we hate some opinions?


Dangerous Opinion

Some opinions make (most of) us laugh (shooting bullets to stop hurricanes) and some can get on our nerves (women should not have equal rights).

And there are some highly complex topics on which most of us have strong opinions (religion, politics, aliens).

Let's pick the forever hot yet open problem - Moderation on Social Media

Moderation is a complex operation. Yet our opinion is every social media company should be perfect in moderation with no room for error. But there will be errors because the definition of error is relative on social media.

Social media is like a club, cafe, playground (pick whatever you like), you invite all your close friends into this place which is now asynchronous. Mostly we have common ground with friends, so thoughts shared by them are taken in a good way (even if they are not resonating with us).

Then we found out the clubs where celebrities, influencers are hanging out and we can join them too. So we start following them too just like our friends.  

These celebrities are mostly domain experts that's the core seed of their power. Some are good in fashion, some have built multi-billion-dollar businesses. When Ray Dalio or Warren Buffet says something on markets then everyone stops and listen, people accept that these people know something that we don't. The surface for friction is reduced because of the influence. Sometimes these people express opinions on domains where they are not experts, but we think of them as facts or opinions from domain experts (Gell-Mann amnesia effect). Like Donald Trump asking people to drink bleach to cure covid Or Spotify vs Joe Rogan misinformation.

This is where we enter the danger zone. We blame social media for these problems and trigger the cancel culture. Tech companies think this problem can be solved by technology, so they spin AI to do fact checks, or label tweets as opinions. But the opinions are rarely evaluated on the right-wrong scale, they are always evaluated on the famous vs not-famous scale.

"We always think that democracy is a good thing, and in a Democracy, the majority is more right than wrong. 51% is more right than 49%. 70% is even more right. But if you get to 99.9%, maybe that’s totally right — or maybe you’re in North Korea." - Peter Thiel

Before the internet and mass media, strong opinions from individuals rarely survived. With internet, the confirmation bias got on steroids and we found people who think and say things just like us and societies like flat earth are born.

"Once, every village had an idiot. It took the internet to bring them all together." - Colonel Robert Bateman

What invokes this strong sense of dislike or anguish in some strong opinions is the attack on identity. Every person right now will have a take on Ukraine vs Russia, since they are attaching their identity to a country. It's their way of participating in the conflict. Giving opposing opinions means a direct attack on identity. Pull any war from the past like World War 2. People will rarely have a strong opinion since their identity is not latched to it. This is what happened when Galileo did, he attacked the identity of the Church. It was never about who's more accurate with the earth's rotational model in the universe.

The same is with politics, people identify themselves as democrat or republican. The fuel behind the strength of these communities is the difference in opinions from anti-party. Desire to win arguments rarely build a strong foundation for opinions.

Opinions become dangerous when they challenge the identity of a larger group. Being wrong is not good to have quality as per natural selection.

What's the point of all this?


Why?

JK Rowling was turned down by 12 publishes because in their opinion Harry Potter is not a good idea. Benevolent dictator for life - The title given to some of the people (mostly founders) in open source projects, that have the final say (opinion) in what to do. Python, vue, Clojure exist because they are opinionated versions of individuals on how programs should be written. When you adopt a framework or language, you adopt the opinion of the lead developer. Homoeopathy is still bouncing between fact and opinion bucket. Fashion is another opinion where we first laugh and then adopt.

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." - Marcus Aurelius

The evolutionary backed conventional wisdom keeps us in the safe opinion zones. Strong opinion that question the status quo and identity of masses is dangerous. But getting an acceptance vote of people is not the validation criteria once you develop strong opinions.

Strong opinions are the seed of the paradigm shifts and the second-order consequence of these shifts is progress. Incremental progress is not enough to satisfy our curiosity. Innovation happens when we question the notion of "this is how it's done".

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." - George Bernard Shaw
Anmol Saini

Anmol Saini