Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 28 April 2010

Of uncertainty and the opinions it spawns

The odd trendy social expectation that everyone simply must have an opinion on everything, irrespective of whether it’s based on fact or fantasy, is all the more reason to say, “Frankly, my dear, I simply don’t know”.

The social lottery of seating arrangements at a recent wedding provided numerous examples of the strangeness of our species. The particular sort of strangeness that was most apparent was our desire or need to have an opinion, even in cases where nothing seems to be at stake, or where the opinion-holder stands no chance of affecting the relevant debate. Much conversation revolved around the equally strange South African political landscape, as one might expect, but there was no shortage of discussion around the British election, despite the fact that many attendees had only snippets from the newswires to draw on as evidence.

This didn’t stop people holding strong opinions and it didn’t seem to be an option to reserve judgement on account of not having enough information. My claim to actually not having an opinion on this particular issue was frequently treated as somehow being an illegitimate claim, as if it was somehow obligatory to weigh in on any given issue, regardless of the fact that many such expressions of opinion could have been derived as usefully from a coin-toss.

Sometimes, the most justified opinion we can possibly have is one of agnosticism. When the conversation turns to climate change, most of us don’t actually have anything useful to say because the issues are complex and we have not yet put in the work required to fully understand them. But that seldom seems to stop us from expressing an opinion, or from our expecting others to take that opinion seriously.

Human beings face an impossible task – that of (ideally) making rational decisions about our futures in the face of an infinite number of complicating factors. There are so many pieces of information that we should incorporate into the decision-making process, and then also a large number of other facts that we could, given enough time, incorporate as well. If a truly rational decision had to include all these factors, it is clear nobody would ever be able to make any rational decisions.

The term used to describe this problem is bounded rationality, which expresses the idea that our rationality is constrained, or bounded, by factors such as the time available for thinking about a problem, the information we have access to and the limitations on rationality that sometimes arise though a shortage of resources, such as in cases where a shortage of money results in research projects being terminated before they have reached useful conclusions.

One consequence of bounded rationality is that individual human beings are forced to collaborate with each other in an effort to understand both themselves and their surroundings. You do not have the time to read every book published on human resource management, so you may choose to specialise in a particular area in the field, and trust that a colleague understands other areas and can advise you if the need arises.

A further consequence is seen in how, as the boundaries of knowledge have expanded, we’ve become more and more reliant on authorities – or at least, those who appear to be authorities, given that authority is often something we might be unable to determine with any confidence. What this means is that we are frequently in a position of potential victimhood with regard to particular fields of knowledge, because we have little option but to trust that others are more informed, and that they are conveying accurate information to us.

The primary consequence, however, is that we are very often simply talking nonsense when we express firm opinions on areas outside of our expertise. We get away with doing so because others are too polite to point this out, and because pointing out the tenuous foundations of the opinions of others would expose our own opinions to equal scrutiny, meaning that we would also no longer be able to get away with authoritative-sounding pontificating.

Interactions with others most often occur in what one might call the “space of reasons”, meaning that when there are serious issues at stake, we should expect to be asked for the reasons why we believe one proposition rather than another. Similarly, we should feel entitled to demand reasons from other people. Instead, we frequently treat all opinions as having equal merit, and assume that other people (and ourselves) have good reasons for believing the things they do.

But these epistemological liberties can be cast as part of a general dumbing-down of the species, which encourages us to adopt lazy habits and patterns of thought. Mundane examples of this include the delegation of much of our decision-making to self-professed authorities, or to those who somehow have been anointed as authorities by the popular media.

One has only to read books such as Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” to discover the extent to which we place, not only our intellects, but sometimes our lives, at risk by not bothering – or being capable of – establishing whether claims are supported by available evidence. Supernaturalism also provides support for these patterns of thought, in that as long as social discourse takes it for granted that there are unknowables outside of the domain of the natural sciences, it remains permissible for people to be less than strictly evidence-based about what they believe.

Being evidence-based in one’s reasoning does not entail or require certainty. Most often, given bounded rationality, as well as an actual lack of available evidence, it would more likely entail uncertainty. In other words, our best and most justified opinions are (or should be) to frequently say “I simply don’t know”. And if we all stuck to pontificating on the things we did know something about, perhaps we’d all be able to learn more from each other, which is surely an outcome to be desired. The failure to do so hints at an extreme insecurity, which leads us to illegitimate confidence in all our utterances, whether or not that confidence is merited.

To put the matter more plainly: Each of us being “entitled to our own opinions” may mean something legally, but it doesn’t mean that opinions themselves are equal. While disagreements may sometimes stretch the boundaries of political correctness, this appears to be an entirely healthy consequence. Treating the world, and claims about the world, as a relativistic free-for-all removes from us part of our opportunity to learn from others, through discovering the complacency that grounds some of our own beliefs.

Of course, weddings are frequently not the place for these sorts of conversations. They tend to involve the consumption of various nonsense-inducing beverages, which make attempts to hold serious conversations rather quixotic. But to the extent that we partly care for truth rather than simply for entertainment, it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves that it’s okay to disagree, and that everybody – ourselves included – sometimes have little clue as to what we’re talking about. And that’s okay, as long as you know it.


"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall