An Opinion on Opinions

Kellen Evan Person


Categories: Culture

People seem uncomfortable having opinions. I’ve had people tell me with pride that they have weak, weakly held opinions. I’ve had others boast that they hold no opinions of any kind. Strong opinions are good and there’s nothing wrong with having them.

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.” ― Douglas Adams

An opinion is not a fact. A fact is verifiable. The cup weights 1lb. You can put the cup upon a scale and prove that it does, in fact, weight 1lb. An opinion is akin to a belief. An opinion is a working theory.

If an opinion is ‘a formal expression of judgment or advice by an expert’ - according to Merrian-Webster - why do we frown upon them? What’s wrong with a working theory? Don’t we trust the experience of the experts we’ve hired or the company we keep? Perhaps not. We’ve decided that we want data, fact; where’s the proof!

If the expression of an expert’s knowledge and experience is their opinion, it should be valuable. But it isn’t. We’re skeptical because opinions run precursor to ignorance. They’re hard to contend with, we think. You just want to do something, but someone else has their mind made up already. They don’t know what you know – they’re missing something; they’re running in one of their old patterns; they aren’t looking at the data.

“When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.” ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Consider that you’ve invested 15 hours into building a new service. A contrary new idea appears and says that something different is better. You might have an opinion or two about that.

Rightfully so! Engineering is complicated. There isn’t a playbook to follow. Everything being built is being built to the spec of someone’s best guess. You made yours, you know what you’re doing, you’ve worked hard, and you feel compelled to defend your decisions.

Suppose this contrary new idea is backed by the illustrious data. Every now and then, an empowered new concept appears and begins to instil the fear, uncertainty, and doubt needed to shake your axiomatic foundations. The data will over-come and conquer; all those before data are obsolete.

Even though the industry changes at an unfathomable pace, data claims to have the beast finally mastered. The new ideal to replace the withering Opinion Driven Development is Data Driven Development.

We want data driven decisions, now. You shouldn’t build that, because the data says… We should optimize for this instead, because the data says… But there’s a funny thing about data. Data is not always factual. You still need to interpret it.

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are incapable of forming such opinions.” ― Albert Einstein

Ted Kaptchuk, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School wrote a fascinating article titled the Effect of interpretive bias on research evidence. His conclusions are important and should be well understood by any organization trying to put data high upon an organizational pedestal:

a: evidence does not speak for itself and must be interpreted for quality and likelihood of error.

Logging and data ingress points are integral parts of your stack. But in a curious twist, it’s unlikely that ‘data’ was used to build your logging infrastructure. In all likelihood, it wasn’t developed in-house, either.

Are you sure that your collection of data is even accurate and clean? How sure are you that the data isn’t being misrepresented or full of error? How are you organizing your data to optimize for valuable and ‘objective’ interpretation?

b: interpretation is never completely independent of a scientist’s beliefs, preconceptions, or theoretical commitments.

The articulate will bend data to fit their narrative. This is as natural a human tendency as breathing. The observer will always be present within their observations.

c: on the cutting edge of science, scientific interpretation can lead to sound judgment or interpretative biases; the distinction can often be made only in retrospect.

This feels obvious, given the context. But it’s important. The decision you make at a point in time is only proven a “good” or “sound” decision over time. Inception through data does not provide immediate verification of the conclusion.

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.” ― Bertrand Russell

If we can’t trust opinions and we can’t trust data, what can we trust? I believe that we can trust both of them. But we need to understand the folly of clinging to any belief or interpretation. This is part of team-work. It’s part of creating a culture around what happens when something goes from ideation to creation.

You’re likely well paid. You’re probably an expert, too. You should have strong opinions. When forming your opinions, summon your experience, intuition, education, and your data. Use all of the tools available to you. Open your mind.

Materialize it as best you can. Write it out. Write it well, make it structured. When you collate your assumptions, do they hold up to your own scrutiny? If they do, become their champion. Put your opinion forward.

When a new idea arrives to challenge it, that new idea needs to do work. The onus is on it now to demonstrate that it is more sound than your own. Don’t give up before the battle because of who is holding it or because it’s based on a metric that seems compelling. Dig into it. Explore it. Question it. Be sceptical. Be sure. But give it a chance. If it succeeds, concede.

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

To do this with grace, you’ll need to pull your self-worth out of your ideas. Be cool about it. You are not your ideas. If you are wrong, or right, or half-wrong, or some-what right, it doesn’t matter.

Do not let others bully you into insecurity by telling you that you’re opinionated or stubborn. Do not pay heed to those acting self-righteous because they’re too cowardly to hold opinions. Do not let others abuse your aversion to friction to manipulate how you think or feel.

Your opinion will do nothing but reflect positively upon you if you trust your heart, think lucidly, and put forward well-distilled, logical, and rational arguments. Be strong. Create a vision. Lead others. Have strong opinions. Otherwise, you’re just a type of fleshy, compliant automaton.