Friday, April 10, 2015

Having Opinions Considered Harmful

A rational person would like to have the most accurate worldview possible. And, by that, I mean having the most objective, informed stance on issues. I think it's safe to say we all want that.

But we are not as rational as we may like to think.

The problem is: we have egos. We don't like to be wrong.

Another problem is: we have all sorts of cognitive biases. Our own brain is often working against us.

When you combine these two problems, you get a society in which people generally do not have the most accurate worldview possible.

For example, a currently controversial issue is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Proponents of GMOs say they will dramatically increase crop yields and reduce world hunger. Opponents say that they are unnatural and make the food chain more fragile.

Other such issues could be abortion, vaccinations, or global warming.

So, what's your opinion?

Did you feel that? Did you feel that emotional response to simply the mention of the topic?

That is what is working against us.

If we have an opinion on an issue, protecting it becomes more important than having the most accurate stance. We would hate to admit that we were wrong about something. So we use confirmation bias to trick ourselves into thinking that the best available information supports our opinion.

It gets even worse when we have stated our opinion publicly, such as in a research paper or newspaper article. Now we are much more vested in protecting our public image.

It gets even worse when our livelihood is based on our opinion. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect that people will just stop having opinions. I still have them, despite knowing all of this.

But I really enjoy when I can say "I don't know" or "I don't have an opinion on that." It's a very freeing experience. I can feel that I am more open to new information when I'm in that mode of thinking.

(And yes, I appreciate the irony that this blog post is my opinion.)