Lucas Medal

Apr 8, 2020

8 min read

On opinions

A reflection on opinions and their role on contemporary discourse.

Rhetoric extraordinaire Cicero, denouncing a conspiracy by Roman senator Catiline to the Senate in 63 B.C.E. — by Cesare Maccari

Part 1 of the series: Impulsive Reasoning — Late-Night Musings from a Rumbling Mind

Opinions appear to be everywhere and drown our daily lives. This trend seems to be increasing as a function of time. There are both fundamental and systemic reasons for this. I want to explore how this trend affects the value of public opinions as an aggregate, and how we are to evaluate and consider the importance we bestow upon them.

The current shift in the way we express our opinions has brought with itself many virtues, such as ease-of-access and a creative explosion we are yet to witness the entire scope of. Equally important, it has also exposed the former owners of truth for their personal interests and has injected a healthy dose of skepticism in the masses.

On the negative side, it has exponentiated the publication of false claims and information — and in consequence, the general anxiety levels of the population.

Most importantly, however, it has diminished the responsibility that comes with speaking, and this is an issue I’ll be exploring further in the essay.

In contemplating about this subject, I found myself needing to define what opinions are and to find their place within the fabric of human nature.

Defining this abstract concept without referencing other thinkers nor language authorities, I came up with the following line of reasoning:

Starting from the foundation that an opinion is an assertion,

  1. By approaching it in a dualistic way, it is not a fact. Hence, it has to be relative in nature. It can be used in the formulation of an argument, but it is entirely weak as evidence for it. Independent from argumentation, it can be used as a mechanism for digression.
  2. Since I’ve defined it as relativistic, it exists in a metaphysical framework where there are no absolute truths or fallacies. It is, in contrast, governed by a belief continuum, where truth lies in the eyes of the beholder.
  3. It is not a hypothesis, but it can become one if it is structured in way that it can undergo any type of scientific rigor to validate it.
My conception of the belief continuum. Illustration pour moi elaborated in Keynote :P

In concrete, the place of an opinion in the spectrum of truth is completely dependent on its position in the subject’s belief continuum. That is, an opinion’s level of truth is wholly dependent on the subject’s degree of belief.

In plain english, I define an opinion as an assertion, the validity of which is completely tied to the degree of belief of the subjects involved. It is entirely subjective, and cannot be used as evidence to back any claim.

What I find most fascinating about opinions is:

  1. Their appealing nature
  2. Their “push effect”
  • What I mean by “push effect” is that every great discovery was probably prefaced by an opinion. “I believe there is a force that keeps us attached to the ground,” leading to gravitational law. Hence, opinions act as precursors of change or progress and, effectively, they “push.”

Concerning their appealing nature, it is curious that although they tend to be less “true” than facts, they are more powerful.

By considering humans as rational beings, one would rapidly assume that we are more attracted to precise information, i.e. facts. However, opinions are way more powerful in the way that they shape reality, and I think that says quite a lot about how we really perceive the world around us.

A way in which opinions overwhelmingly shape our reality is in how they govern the way we live. Most (to not condemn myself with the absolutism of saying every) economic, societal, governmental, relational, and most other incredibly complex systems that rule our day-to-day lives are based on opinions.

Think about it, all systems that run this beautiful mess that we call civilization, all laws and norms, are opinions.

There’s arguments for and against all of these systems, but they began as simple opinions with some abstract reasoning (no matter how flawed) behind it, and some guy convinced a bunch of people, either by logic, force, charisma, or some good ol’ emotional trigger (such as fear, anger or hope) to abide to and believe in it.

We’ve built enormous institutions based on opinions. We’ve progressed and crashed, engaged in gory conflicts, and are exploring space based on opinions.

Frankly, if we have waited for everything to be scientifically or methodically proven before believing it, we wouldn’t have done anything.

What makes opinions so appealing is that I believe we are a story-telling species, and they are just another model of story-telling. It is the stories that we tell ourselves which fundamentally build our reality.

Opinions then become one of the most determining elements in the fabrication of our existential truths.

This captivating nature ultimately gives opinions the power to completely overwhelm facts.

Now that the fundamental aspects and relevance of opinions have been addressed, I want to delve into how the structure of the world we live in has enabled this explosion of opinions.

Walter Cronkite, 20th-century larger-than-life television news anchor. During his time, considered “The most trusted man in America.” Oh, how the times have changed…

It wasn’t long ago that news outlets, self-proclaimed experts, and authorities were, in most part, the world’s source of daily information. Men in white uniforms and glasses, suit-and-ties and quite a lot of pomade, would preach the truth from mediums such as the television, radio, public events, or in the form of printed publications.

Since the mass adoption of social media and digital content platforms, the source of truth and guidance has become decentralized. No longer is the source of truth and information an oligopoly of media companies, political parties, or other interest-groups .

Nowadays, independent writers, bloggers, Youtubers, podcasters, influencers, and a myriad of other “-ers” you can think of are casting out their opinions on everything, frequently, and to massive audiences.

We habitually witness the mass proliferation for poorly reviewed information on internet platforms (Gosh, I sound so old-fashioned referring to the digital domain as “the internet”).

This is relevant because people base their opinions on both external and internal factors. They form their own stories based on the stories that they ingest — be it from a shared Facebook post, a Whatsapp message chain, a news-caster, or the latest in-vogue “expert”.

If we analyze the profile of these purveyors of opinions, it has also never been easier to have an audience to speak out to. Even a person without many followers can inadvertently find themselves on national television if their opinion is notorious enough.

The system itself has become a low-friction, high-output, and highly connected web of impulsive higher-order apes, frenetically wanting to find out the latest gossip while immediately barking their own assertions with very little regard about the consequences.

Seeing the significance of opinions, their nature, their impact, and how the current system affects the way they are conjured and consumed, one has to ask, is there any value in opinions as an aggregate?

If I had to determine a price to the privilege and ability of declaring ones’ public opinion nowadays, it would definitely be lower than in past times. Quite significantly lower. The system allows for a very low-cost and efficient manner of doing so.

Considering the amount of false information out there that is consequential in the formulation of opinions and the shear volume of public opinions, then it seems logical, at first, to consider the aggregate value of these to be rather low.

However, let us engage in a short thought experiment and imagine a world with very little opinions, where there is no discourse, except in the high halls of intelligentsia and elite aristocrats — Platonian aristocracy. Let’s assume these people formulate their opinions from an informed position at least an order of magnitude greater than that of the average person today on social media. It certainly results in the unitary value of opinions being higher. However, is the aggregate result greater?

It is difficult to know. Although the unitary value is greater, the volume of the contemporary scenario is so great that it might just overcome it in aggregate value.

I tend to distrust humans, as I consider us fickle and self-interested beings, that ultimately respond to their own impulses. Hence, even a system that works like the idealistic one outlined in the thought experiment would eventually be condemned to dystopian tendencies.

I do believe this, that opinions are valuable and should be treated with tremendous responsibility. Speaking one’s mind on a massive platform is a privilege that was unimaginable for the vast majority of the world just a generation ago.

In a world where opinions are cheap to utter, and where they appear to have a lifespan of 15 days, I call upon myself to elevate the quality of my own opinions to impact the aggregate value of opinions — although in a small proportion — , by being conscious about the beauty that the ability of projecting my own mind has, and how my own assertions can impact the subjective realities of the people that I’m speaking to, be it with my friends, my co-workers, on Twitter, or on this very platform, where I am as of now expressing an opinion about opinions.

I’ll experiment with the following system of checks before sharing an opinion:

  1. How informed I am
  2. How rigorous I was in formulating it
  3. Have I considered the other side
  4. Have I attempted to refute it
  5. Does it serve a greater good

I consider this to be a simple approach to make my opinions more valuable to those around me; and to make myself more conscious in the process.

— This is part of a series of reflexions that come from the heart :D, so they don’t follow any particular order. I’m just a guy who likes to have discussions (sometimes with his own mind) and am partaking in this beautiful journey of writing in an effort to crystalize a few things that I think about. They are not exhaustive in their investigative nature and exclusively reflect my point of view. To my readers, I invite you to embrace this as a simple interpretation of reality and, if you wish, use the comment section as a forum. —