An Opinionated Take on the Value of an Opinion

Are all opinions equally valuable? My claim is “no,” and here’s why.

One thing that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about over the past few months is assessing  different viewpoints, or opinions, and how we assign value or merit to them. Eschewing political correctness, the conclusion I’ve come to is this: there are inherently more valuable and less valuable opinions, and that value is roughly quantifiable.

As you can imagine, dissecting this quickly gets sticky: what is a true opinion? How do we measure it’s value? To avoid diving into this too far, I’m going to present some basic tenants that I used to simplify this. First, let’s assume that there are true facts in this world. Second, let’s stipulate that people’s beliefs or opinions are derived at least in part from the base of facts that they know. Third, let’s stipulate that there are “facts” out there that are either incorrect or misleading: some may call these alternative facts (Hi Kellyanne!). All of this should be fairly reasonable – debatable for the devil’s advocate in the crowd, but fairly intuitive and broad enough to suffice as a framework.

Given the three tenants I mentioned above, let’s go into a hypothetical situation. In this case you are an executive of a company deciding whether to push a button. If pushed, that button will kick off an impossibly complicated set of processes that could generate billions of dollars or it could destroy the company. Unfortunately, this is your first day on the job, so you know nothing about the company or the process that it would kick off. Fortunately though, you have three advisers. You are meeting all of them for the first time, but you have records on all three that represent three things: how many facts they know about the company, what percent of their beliefs are actually true, and a measure of their ability to connect disparate pieces of information.

Do you press the button that will cause complicated and dangerous things to happen? Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So let’s meet these three advisers. Adviser A knows an incredible amount of facts, has an average amount of incorrect facts, but very low ability to connect these facts. Adviser B is incredibly good at connecting facts, but doesn’t know as many facts and believes a larger amount of facts that are incorrect. Adviser C is as good as Adviser A in understanding facts, has the least incorrect facts, and has Adviser B’s ability to connect facts. Put another way, Adviser C represents the best across each of the dimensions we care about: C knows the most, has the least incorrect facts corrupting his views, and has the best ability to connect these facts and apply them to the processes we are about to kick off.

As the executive here, your decision here is pretty clear: you do whatever Adviser C says. Adviser A’s inclusion may yield additional facts, but ultimately his opinion is very likely to miss crucial effects of the processes because he hasn’t connected all the dots. Adviser B’s inclusion risks incorporating incorrect knowledge into the system, and conclusions are likely to be misguided because of the amount of incorrect facts that he believes. Maybe you do have a discussion to try to get some facts from Adviser A, and maybe you are okay risking incorrect facts to get some facts from Adviser B, but if you have to listen to one person, you pick Adviser C every time and it’s not a close contest.

What this parable says is this: opinions have a value proportional to the volume of correct information coming in, inversely proportional to the volume of incorrect or corrupted information, and proportional to the holder’s ability to process that information. Are there other factors in play? Definitely – things like risk aversion matter here, more broadly people’s weighting of different outcomes is obviously critical. But if we set all those equal (as we did in the parable above) the answer is clear: correct knowledge and processing ability drive the value of an opinion.

Let’s get back to reality. We obviously don’t have concrete measures of those three dimensions that the executive had, but these numbers would exist for an omnipotent observer. And whether or not you want to admit it, you do try to approximate all three of these dimensions as you get to know someone, you weight their opinions based on these factors, and you should.

Until now, I’ve kept this fairly apolitical, but this does relate to a core question for me, which is what weight do we place on the mass revolt of rural communities in supporting Donald Trump and now his policies e.g. the immigration executive order that he recently signed?

Iraqi and Syrian immigrants off the coast of Greece. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

That answer will be different for each person. My view is this: I’ve seen the Republican party meandering farther and farther from facts and logic-based decision making. That’s sad because there are things on the traditional political right, particularly on the economic side, that do have an intellectual case. But things like their approach to immigration undermines all that. What do you expect when a party claims that (even temporarily) banning refugees will make us safer despite an already thorough vetting process (fact), zero American deaths at the hands of refugees in the last 35 years (fact), and ignoring the backlash and anger that the order will generate as shown by ISIS’s celebration of the order (fact)? Maybe there will be a recovery of the intellectual right, but it’s not out there right now.

Also published on Medium.

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