Holding Fewer Opinions

by Peter Saint-Andre


A few months ago I read the transcript of a discussion between Brian Beck and Robin Hanson, in which Hanson advised the listener to hold fewer opinions:

"Just have fewer opinions on topics. You don't need as many opinions as you usually have." You should pick the topics on which you're going to be somewhat expert and you're going to invest in those and you're going to tell people what you know there. On other topics, you don't necessarily need opinions. You can just go with what other people say, and that can be okay. Have fewer opinions. And in each topic, ask yourself, "Do I need an opinion on this? Am I, you know, especially good at this?" And if you don't need an opinion or you don't have any special expertise compared to other people you could rely on, then don't have an opinion on it. That's a way to disagree less is just halve your opinions. Certainly fewer poorly thought out opinions, poorly considered opinions. All the more reason to get rid of those.

In general I agree, and over the years I've steadily decreased the number of topics on which I take strong positions. This goes hand-in-hand with my low-information diet: the less I follow the news, the less I feel the need to have an opinion about whatever is happening in the world.

However, I would add one caveat. Hanson's advice could be taken as ceding authority to technocrats, policy wonks, and other self-appointed experts. Yet one lesson of the last hundred years or so is that the so-called experts aren't necessarily good at finding practical or theoretical truth, either (consider, say, the role of Robert McNamara and his team in escalating the Vietnam War, or more recently the replication crisis in the social sciences). "Trust the experts" is generally a bad idea - at least in my opinion. ;-)

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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