DRMacIver's Notebook

The art of not having opinions

The art of not having opinions

In the same conversation with Dave that lead to us talking about which way people veer to avoid collisions we ended up playing a sort of game.

For context: Dave works in transport. Transport is something we all encounter on a very regular basis, so we all tend to think about it a lot. However, transport is a complex system, so it’s more broken and less comprehensible than you might intuitively expect it to be. As a result, most people’s opinions on transport are bad.

So, the game: I had to keep coming up with transport opinions I held, and Dave would judge if they were bad opinions.

Eventually we ran out of time or got distracted or something (I forget) and I made it to that point without having any bad opinions. I was quite pleased by this.

Another place I was pleased with myself recently was my performance on the common misconceptions test. The number of things I got right was only so so (I forget exactly, but I think about 85% right?), but I was almost perfectly calibrated: The ones where my confidence was high were right, the ones where my confidence was low were right in about the proportion they should be. This was a bit surprising to me, as in the past I have definitely not been that well calibrated on similar things.

I think these both happened for fairly general reasons: Over the last decade, I’ve gotten much better at not having opinions on things.

This might be surprising to you, as I have a lot of opinions, but it makes sense: I’ve not gotten better at having fewer opinions, I’ve gotten better at not having opinions on any given thing unless it makes sense for me to do so.

There’s a lot of social pressure against doing this. We basically use having opinions at each other as a social bonding activity to make sure that the person we’re talking to has the “right” sort of politics, so there’s a lot of social pressure against this, but I think it’s worth doing if we want our opinions to be truth tracking.

Two useful prompts for recalibrating opinions:

  1. Is it useful for me to have an opinion on this? If not, why do I have one?
  2. If this opinion were wrong, would I be able to tell?

If the answer to either of these is no, why are you having an opinion on it? At the very least, you should be less confident in asserting it.