Against Having Opinions

Given that blogging is a medium for expressing opinions, It is somewhat hypocritical to advise against having them, but here are some reasons to not have opinions or to not heed other people’s opinions.

Your opinion is likely to suck, and subject to the unpredictable whims of the crowds. Have you every composed what you thought was the perfect Reddit or Hacker News comment–relevant and backed by evidence–only to have it be ignored or, worse, be down-voted even if no reason is given? That is the ‘marketplace of ideas’ telling you your opinion sucks. And worst of all, you may not know why it sucks, only that it does.

Likability matters a lot and can help steer the crowd in your favor. Joe Rogan is the master of taking even seemingly banal or prosaic observations and making them seem interesting to a lot of people, not because of any pretense of intellectualism, but the authenticity of he coveys of being an ordinary guy who is just looking for answers, so he has these experts on his podcast and and asks questions and patiently listens. Having the ear of someone like Elon Musk or even major politicians makes you anything but ordinary, yet Mr. Rogan pulls it off.

John McWhorter is an outspoken critic of the so-called ‘woke left’ and identity politics, yet it’s hard to find anyone, even on the left, who has anything negative to say about him even if there is considerable disagreement on the issues. Contrast that to someone like Paul Krugman, who is less likable because he comes across as too partisan and sanctimonious. It’s one thing to believe you’re right based on the evidence brought forth, but it entirely another to lay claim to an unearned moral superiority by caricaturing your opponents in the worst possible light. Perhaps Dr. Krugman is more successful if we go by objective accomplishments (Nobel Prize in economics, NYTs column, etc.) alone, but Sowell and McWhorter are far more effective at being effective communicators of their ideas.

Likability is hard to quantify in a scientific sense, yet invaluable. Someone like Donald Trump can still be likable despite a lot of people disliking him, because there are still a lot of people who like him a lot. Contrast Trump to someone like Jeb Bush, who few people seem like at all that much, yet no one dislikes Jeb with the same passion we see for Mr. Trump. Trump’s followers are considerably more loyal to Trump than Romney’s, McCain’s, or Bush’s followers were to their respective candidates. Trump was able to retain his base despite losing, which is uncommon in US politics. Usually the losing candidate fades away from the public spotlight quickly (like Dole in 1996), but that was not the case with Trump.

Your opinion is likely to be wrong. It’s hard enough getting the facts right, let alone having correct opinions. A year later, is there any consensus about the efficacy of masks or social distancing? Who knows. We’re not even talking about opinions about masks, but just the facts and data. Or the effectiveness vaccines. Where did Covid come from? Who knows, except ‘China’, which we knew from the beginning (as that is where Covid originated), so almost two years of endless teeth gnashing by the media and pundits led to nowhere, except what we already knew in February 2020. We see this with economics a lot, in which conservatives can cite a study showing how raising the minimum wage is harmful, yet other studies show no effect or even positive effects. Who’s right? Then you’d have to delve deeper; perhaps some of the studies are beset by methodological errors, so they can be excluded. This process can continue ad-infinitum, but despite having more information, no one is actually closer to answering the question if raising the minimum wage is ultimately harmful or helpful.

Asymmetry is also working against you: people are much more likely to be offended by wrong, incorrect, bad opinions than express approval of good ones. If you opinion sucks, it’s assured you will know about it either by votes or people telling you how and where you are wrong. It’s sorta like the opposite of Amazon reviews, in which all products seem to have 4-5 stars. It’s too bad Amazon cannot bring the honesty and transparency to its reviews that we see with online discussion.

Improving the odds of correctness requires considerable research weighing both sides of the issue (unless you’re Joe Rogan, in which little research is necessary), which for most people is not worth the effort. It’s easier to just shoot off a tweet based on a hunch or a feeling, without having to do any effort to substantiate it. If you get called out on it, because it’s Twitter, you can just delete the tweet or block the person. On certain Reddit subs and forums, this can get you a ban, as you are expected to defend your positions with evidence.

Professional pundits who write for major media publications such as World Net Daily, National Review, or Forbes do not need to be accurate, only that they check the necessary boxes (defense spending and Israel = good, student loan debt forgiveness = bad, etc.). The problem is that for everyone else, who doesn’t have the backing of a multi-million dollar publisher and the large built-in audience, connections, and imperviousness to criticism that comes with it, it’s either sink or swim by the quality of the writing alone.

Without such connection and built-in audience, for content to go viral requires assiduous attentiveness to accuracy or else it will be torn to pieces by the very ‘influencers’ who hold the keys to virnalness. If it’s not already obvious, accuracy is very important, even more so than the overall message. For example, it’s not uncommon on Reddit (but this probably applies to any community with a smart, discriminating audience) to see a comment or a post which tries to make a broader point but has inaccuracies, but replies which correct the inaccuracies but otherwise add nothing else to the discussion get more up-votes than the original comment.

In contrast to the brevity of Rogan, someone like Scott Alexander excels at composing detailed, well-researched opinions that are well-received by a large, ideologically-diverse audience. Such opinions if composed by someone who is not as deft with words or as attentive to the ‘opposing side’ and accuracy would likely be met with considerably more objection or even outright derision. Scott can write an essay praising capitalism, and even Marxists who disagree with the premise can still respect Scott’s willingness to entertain, rather than dismiss, criticisms of capitalism.

So this means one must occupy one of two extremes: writing lengthy, air-tight arguments backed by considerable data, as someone like Lyn Alden does, or have a knack for composing terse opinions that are incisive and pack a punch, like Rogan or Ben Shapiro. The latter is related to the the so-called ‘hot take’. The idea is to express an opinion that many people can relate to on either side of the aisle, is not obvious [if it’s too obvious, then it’s not funny or clever], and exposes the sort of logical inconsistencies of whoever the target is but without moralizing about the issue. Here is an example of such a take:

Even liberals have to concede he has a point, or at least that he is not wrong.

On the opposite extreme are so-called ‘stale takes’, which tend to state the obvious or are unoriginal. The quintessential example is the hackneyed line, “dems are the real racists,” which is almost never voiced in sincerity anymore. Even as recently as 2016, careers were made from repeating this over and over, or at least variations of it or integrating such themes of perceived democratic party hypocrisy into commentary, as at the time it seemed so edgy to contrast how the left, which proclaims to be anti-racist, as either having racist ulterior motives or being inadvertently racist.

Most people when they try to have options just sound arrogant and ignorant. This is the worst place to be. You can be arrogant but likable (like Trump) or smart and more detached (like Lyn Alden) but you cannot be unlikable and ignorant. People who succeed at being persuasive don’t create a fortresses of epistemic certainty, but just accept and acknowledge their limitations, and this humbleness and vulnerability helps immensely at being likable. Joe Rogan for example never pretends to be an intellectual, because that would not work, being that he lacks the credentials and it would not be convincing to the audience, so he begins his interviews with the implicit assumption that he knows nothing and asks questions in order to break down a complicated concept into something his listeners can understand. I look at why some YouTube videos or Reddit posts are downvoted so much (before YouTube removed the downvotes), and it is always at the intersection of arrogance and ignorance: they convey an unearned certainty of their beliefs.

The stakes are likely too small to matter anyway to justify having such strong opinions. Except for Covid, I cannot think of recent issue that has elicited as much acrimony and partisan division as the ACA (colloquially called as Obamacare). But while the stakes for Covid are very high, the amount at stake in terms of the cost of the ACA for individuals, is quite small, especially relative to other expenses, yet this has not stopped the ACA from being one of the most hotly debated issues ever, the constitutionally of which which nearly a decade later continues to be challenged. But credit card debt is in the trillions, yet no one is up in arms over that. The ‘satanic panic’ and other media-generated controversies of the 80s and 90s are examples of low-stakes issues dominating discourse and giving rise to very heated exchanges of opinions.

Heeding opinions can cost you money and make you worse-off overall. Regarding the ACA again, there were endless predictions in 2012-2014 about how the ACA would cripple the US economy, but the US economy and S&P 500 have continued to boom in spite of the ACA, especially compared to foreign markets and economies. People who sold their stocks in anticipation of the ACA sinking the economy would have missed out on the huge post-2013 rally that was to follow. Same for predictions in 2008-2009 about hyperinflation, predictions of a relapse of the 2008 financial crisis, innumerable predictions of housing and stock market bubbles and bear markets, predictions in 2015-2017 by the left of Trump dooming the US economy, or predictions about the Trump tariffs against China in 2018-2019, again, crippling the US economy. I think the lesson here is that the US economy and the private sector is pretty damn impervious to things that are supposed to doom it.

And of course, people being fired for posting opinions which are deemed racist or hateful, on social media. Many people have had their careers, livelihoods ruined over voicing certain opinions, or even merely for being associated with people who have bad opinions, or failing to denounce such individuals or opinions.

Unless you have a large platform , name recognition, or valued, sought-after credentials, it’s not like anyone will come to your defense or that you can just bounce back via Substack donations or podcasts. People whose skills are interchangeable or easily replaceable, fare the worst after being cancelled/fired. You hear about David Shor’s comeback after famously being fired in 2020 (for the lamest reason ever, which is probably why his career recovered), but what about Justine Sacco, who was fired in 2013 for tweeting a joke? I don’t think there’s any Substack career in the cards for her. Or a worker fired for making an ‘ok’ hand gesture (which I guess is deemed racist). No Substack for him either.

It’s easier to understand the stock market than to understand the fickle ‘marketplace of ideas’, in which tastes are constantly changing. I am fairly certain a decade from now that Facebook , Microsoft , Google, Tesla, and Amazon will be dominant, hence why I own those stocks and ETFs that have exposure to them, but will ‘cancel culture’ still be a thing? Will wokeness still be a buzzword? Who knows. Remember when it was popular to support George W. Bush and the war in Iraq? How are you supposed to keep up with this? How are you supposed to know what subjects or views cannot be broached, what is acceptable or not? I took a ton of shit recently for saying that Christopher Hitchens’ legacy had been hurt by his unfailing support for the Iraq war, even when it was apparent that the war was going badly and was on a false pretense. It’s 2021…maybe war is popular again? Who knows! But I sure as hell didn’t when I made that opinion! Either you cling to unpopular opinions in the hope they eventually become popular, or you change your opinions so they are more valued by the marketplace (such as by self-censoring). Neither of these options seem attractive.

In the end, having good opinions is a skill, like almost everything else in life. This means it can be improved with practice, but like like flying a plane, it’s sometimes best left to the experts.

1 comment

  1. “John McWhorter is an outspoken critic of the so-called ‘woke left’ and identity politics,”

    I’ve only just read something by him in this interview but he most definitely is into identity politics:

    https://www.vox.com/vox-conversations-podcast/2021/11/2/22728801/vox-conversations-john-mcwhorter-woke-racism

    He’s learned how to use the soothing jargon and is not an outspoken critic at all. He’s onboard and is worried it’s becoming so obvious that the Eloi might start to notice. I’d say his job is to prepare corporate types to rationalize upper management quotas.

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