On Having Good Opinions (deconstructing Joe Rogan’s success)

Having good opinions.

What Scott Adams, Scott Alexander, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, and even Joe Rogan have in common is they generally have ‘good’ opinions, as opposed to ‘bad’ ones. The difference between a bad opinion and a good one, is with the latter you may leave thinking, “I disagree, but the argument was well-reasoned, and I can understand where the author is coming from, and my disagreement not lower my personal opinion of him.” A bad one evokes a more repulsive reaction, that goes beyond just disagreement and calls into doubt the ethical values and intellectual credibility of the author.

From the post In Defense of the Journalistic Method

When you read a professionally-done article, you may leave disagreeing with the author’s conclusion, but concede that the premises were still well-argued and logically sound. The author is cognizant that the opposing argument is predicated on the same foundational logic that is as very much ‘self evident’ to the other side as it is to his own, and thus should treat is as seriously as his own, rather than dismissed. Yes, it’s not news to communists that millions of people died under Stalin and Mao. That doesn’t invalidate the anti-communist argument, but such arguments are unoriginal and lazy; instead, address the response by communists to such deaths.

Sound smart, but preferably, be smart. Jim is one of the smartest internet political philosophy writers I have come across in terms of breadth of knowledge and ability to refute any argument. Like Vox Day, who is also really smart, some of the stuff he says may be offensive to some, but he does not sound stupid when he’s saying it. That is very important. People can tolerate being offended, but they cannot tolerate stupidity and inaccuracies. You can at least have some degree of control over the latter with fact-checking and research. If you don’t have the facts at hand, just say “I don’t know,” or don’t have such a strong opinion.

Imagine if two people, one a theoretical physicist with an IQ of 150 and the other just an average-IQ gender studies major, post the same anti-Trump or social-justice tweet. Even if the tweet is wrong, by virtue of being smart, the the opinion of the physicist is more likely to be taken seriously, and furthermore, the ‘outgroup’ is more likely to try to understand where the physicist is coming from than dismiss him outright, and may even go so far as engage in a productive dialog with him. But the average-IQ gender studies major is likely to be dismissed as an SJW, beneath even contempt. This also works in reverse (pro-Trump tweet) but to a lesser extent (my own observation has been that the ‘right’ is more inclined to entertain opposing views than the ‘left’). This is discussed in further detail the intellectualism as a passport post.

Scott Adams is a cartoonist by trade but evokes the intellectual aura of a polymath by being able to converse about a wide range of subjects, even subjects that he is completely unfamiliar with, and not sound stupid or outlandish in the process. People may disagree with his opinions, but he at least sounds smart and reasonable when he says them. He can get a piece of information such as a news report or memo and come up with a reasonable-sounding impromptu assessment of it.

Keep an open mind; be impartial. Look at the huge success of Joe Rogan, who is like the anti-Limbaugh or anti-Jones. With the exception of MMA and certain celebrity-related stuff, he prefers to ask questions and learn as much as possible from his guests than impart his own opinions, unless he is certain about something. This more reticent, restrained style in discourse is the opposite of the typical talk ratio or political-pundit format, yet Joe has had huge success with it, especially in the past 2 years (with the rise of the entire IDW, in general).

People got all mad when Joe failed to grill Jack Dorsey about Twitter’s policies on banning accounts, and understandably so (Torquemada would have done a better job, but Jack would probably not agree to go on his podcast), but people need to understand that Joe was doing what worked for him masterfully for the past 2+ years, and only during this one episode it failed. How can you hold it against him for using a formula that has worked so well for other guests such as with Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, etc. and helped make his podcast as successful as it is, only for it to fail this one time?

Although there are many successful pundits who have a confrontational style, much of their listenership/readership is from the pre-2009 era and or they have major sponsors/backers. That style of discourse is not nearly as effective at getting new followers and viralness in a post-2013 era. Joe’s growth is organic based on the viralness of his videos and word of mouth, not by being backed by media conglomerates. Ann Coulter and Rush, although very popular, built their brands in the 90′s when low-information discourse thrived, and are backed by big money.

Imagine you have been abducted by aliens and whisked to their planet. The first thing you would do is try to familiarize yourself with your new surroundings, not try to prove how superior you are to your captors. That is what Joe , again, does when he has guests who are much smarter than him or knowledgeable about a topic that he is unfamiliar with. Sometimes he will go 10 minutes just listening and absorbing as much as possible, with the occasional question. But with a guest like Jordan Peterson, in which Joe Rogan has much more familiarity with the content, the interview is more conversational than didactic.

Employ shared narratives and themes. Although they are opinions, by definition many people agree with them and require less justification. A banal but true statement such as “the social media and political landscape is crazy” or “Americans are increasingly distrustful of each other and society seems like it is falling apart” is less likely to elicit rebuke than declarative statements such as “liberals/conservatives are making things worse” or “society is better/worse than it has ever been.” Look at all the controversy and backlash Pinker has attracted just for saying things are getting better. Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat, rather than pound the table about how one side is wrong and the other is right, first consider what motivates both sides to believe what they do, and then try to find a unifying theme, that being the shared narrative. A common theme of their work is not that one side is to blame but rather the fabric of society itself is torn and that Trump and his voters are the symptom, not the problem.

Stick to what you know. Again regarding Joe, he is most opinionated about stuff he either knows really well (such as MMA) or stuff that is obvious to the point of being banal “it seems people are so mad at each other online.”

They are either with you or against you. The thumbs-up or thumbs-down jury is as relevant now as it was in Rome. If you are in the ‘wrong’ and the crowd is booing, then acting like an asshole will only give them further justification to feed you to the lions. In the case of Joe Rogan, his fame and popularity was not enough annul the overwhelming verdict by the jury of his peers that his Jack Dorsey interview bombed, so he was contrite rather than being defiant and agreed to re-do the interview. Dr. Jordan Peterson also backtracked when his ‘step down’ tweet got backlash, although he did so more obliquely by not disavowing the tweet but by trying to justify it.

Be provisional. The more flexible you present yourself as being, the less likely you will have to confine yourself to an intellectual box. Scott Adams has the intellectual freedom to criticize Trump without being lambasted by his followers, because he built the necessary intellectual credibility; Ann Coulter did not and paid a price when she did.

Appeal to curiosity. Joe is always asking questions, seeking clarification when he doesn’t understand something.

Anticipate possible objections and address them, than assuming they will go unnoticed, because they won’t and it will cost you credibility. Don’t preach to the choir, but instead write with the most skeptical reader in mind, who does not know you and has no reason to believe you. Scott Adams and Scott Alexander do this. Present both sides of an argument, laying the facts bare, and then nudge the reader to your desired conclusion, rather than browbeating the audience with your naive, uninformed opinions. As mentioned above, being opinionated works if you have your facts together; otherwise, it fails horribly unless you’re a pre-2009 era pundit with an already established low-information audience that will uncritically lap up your every word. If you cannot decide or don’t have the expertise to make such a determination about what it right or wrong, then don’t.