How to Form a Worthwhile Opinion

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This seems like such an unnecessary post because I assumed good old-fashioned common sense is how most people formed opinions. But alas in the past year I’ve seen less and less evidence of this. In these days of extreme division in the country –really, in the world- this unnecessary post has become quite necessary.

As I’ve watched this political and cultural circus unfold in both the US and abroad, I’ve realized much of the division and gullibility that’s spreading and shaping opinions, thus decisions, is the direct result of the failure to properly form an opinion. People literally pull shit out of the air, wrap it in emotions, remove all context, pack it full of bias and then pass it along social media and other avenues as the truth! Soon others adopt it as truth and pass it on without a second thought. Before long thousands of people are rolling in bullshit someone pulled out of the air. That is literally dangerous! (Remember pizzagate?)

Listen, I personally don’t care what your opinion is nearly as much as I care how and why it was formed. This how and why is hard to decipher because people often think what they think without knowing why. Some of the common reasons/motivations people form uninformed opinions are based on: Family opinion/upbringing, spouse/mate influence, peer pressure, social majority/social media, etc. This means many people adopt someone else’s opinion without even thinking about it.

Further, it’s hard to decipher because even if people don’t know, they don’t want to be challenged to think about it. No matter how respectful or genuine the questioning, they get defensive, divert, hurl insults, throw red herrings or simply end the conversation with “I don’t have to explain myself to you!” Here’s a hint: If you can’t calmly articulate why you think the way you do when asked to explain it, then you are very likely guilty of adopting someone else’s opinion without validation.

Imagine there are two people are asked about heart health in relation to fish oil supplements. One person is a grandmother who had a heart attack. The other is a cardiologist. Grandma says “I am not an advocate. I took it almost every day for a few years and I still had a heart attack!” The cardiologist says “I’m an advocate because I’ve conducted or participated in 10 studies over 25 years of studying and operating on the heart, wrote 3 books and 2 journal entries accepted by my industry confirming that there’s scientific data that shows fish oil does help the heart.”

Now, who do you believe? One is based on granny’s experience. The other is based on solid theory, research, experience, approved by the cardiology community. When those opinions are challenged, who is likely to be able to answer and who will probably dismiss you? That’s the difference in an opinion and an informed opinion. But going by current tone of the Country, many people would still dismiss the cardiologist and stick to grandma’s view simply because it’s grandma. The bias of association with grandma overrides the logic of the expert. Sigh…

That’s why I’m writing this. As the title suggests, this is an attempt to help you figure out how to form a valid opinion- one that holds up against scrutiny, that is backed by facts or solid theory, that is defensible and can be reasonably validated. (Be clear this has nothing to do with agreement–it’s to ensure your opinion is informed. So let’s get to it.

1. Make sure the story you read/hear is not fake news. Once upon a time we had hilariously written satire from the likes of places like The Onion. We all knew it was an exaggerated comedic spin on a common topic and wasn’t meant as truth. But last year we were hit with this whole “fake news” crap. It started with “click bait” headlines which were at first to invoke curiosity with the motive of generating ad revenue. Soon the click bait headlines were so bad, they became almost unrelated to the actual story. Yet these things kept being accepted by an undiscerning social media audience until it became acceptable to post totally false stories. The impact really became obvious last year during the Election. Now it’s not only a catchphrase but a catch-all for people who simply didn’t like a story. Suddenly people want ‘proof’ and we are reduced to snarky “deductive logic” of “well it doesn’t sound right to me”. So now we’re calling any and everything fake using the same poor lack of logic as we deem something true — without any proof at all. So make sure your story is a story please. Once you are sure you have a story:

2. Find the opposing sides of the same story: You can’t form a whole opinion with half the information so you have to check the view of both opponents and supporters to see what they know. Be careful not to skip this step because this is where your personal biases can lead to confirmation bias (desire to see only info that already agrees with you). This is the crucial step many people won’t take. Anyway, if you prefer Fox News, find the same story on MSNBC. If you like Breitbart, find the same story on Huffington Post, etc. They have to share their source when reporting a story and that is what you look for. If they say “Koala bears are speaking English according to___”, find the according to. The source should be the same for both. It’s the root story and won’t have much spin in most cases. (If the source is another news outlet, you have to go to that source and work your to the original source). Meaning if the Zoo director is the one saying Koala’s are speaking English, all media should name the Zoo director as the source.

3. Remove slants, bias, singular opinions: Remember, the slants or tone of a story comes from the outlet that reports the story (mainstream media) so once you dig you’ll see for yourself where the media cut and polished the root story to fit their narrative/audience. You’ll see how the pundits spun it, where it’s out of context or partial context. Most people take the spin as truth and it becomes their opinion. Smart people remove the bullshit and form their opinion based upon the actual story and any supporting, verifiable facts. Neutral sources are best bet for final research (though those are getting fuzzy these days depending on who’s attacked it). NPR, CNN, Meet the Press — these are still primarily neutral and do less of the slanting and painting than others.

Really, that’s all there is to it. Reliable source, root story, verify both sides to validate yourself and be willing to change your mind if you find out you were mistaken. Once you start exploring, you tend to find out you didn’t know shit and you either accept new information OR you dismiss it and stick to what you believe despite the new facts or information. Sadly, sadly, sadly, many choose the latter. It’s more comfortable than pushing your brain into new zones –zones that may alienate you from the influences that fed your original opinion.

I personally just want to see things as they are- not as I want to see them. If that means I prove myself wrong or others can present evidence to prove me wrong, so be it. If I turn out to have been on right track with my thoughts, cool. Isn’t that a better way to understand the world? Wouldn’t we be much less caustic, divided and irrational now if we all just put in a little more effort to form our opinions? I think so…