You Shouldn’t Have an Opinion on Most Issues

Not sure what inspired this post: Vaccinations? Health care? Climate change? Middle East policy? Superbowl play calling?

Anyways, the tagline is this: you should not have opinions on most issues.

Next time you’re at a friend’s dinner party, and someone asks you:

“What do you think about X?”

Almost every time your answer should be:

“I have not studied the issue deeply. But a lot of people have spent their lives studying the issue. You should read their work.”

If your new dinner acquentaince presses on, you should say:

“Alright, alright. I really don’t know, but I do like talking about X, so I’m quite happy for us to both pretend we know something issue, and there’s a small chance we’ll learn something, and it might keep us from having to play Jenga.”

Also, if expert opinion is divided, this doesn’t mean you get to weigh-in without doing your homework.   Instead, you simply note that experts are divided on the issue and you’re not qualified to determine who is right.

This is not to say that you should never question expert opinion. If you are willing to go deep on analyzing complex arguments and reviewing research, you should by all means dig in and try to come up with an opinion. If you don’t devote (at least!) a few months to this project, please keep your opinions to yourself.

To be clear, I don’t think experts are always right. Nor do I think that laypeople can’t sometimes prove experts wrong.

I just think experts are more likely to be right than laypeople, and that the laypeople who prove experts wrong usually have explored the specific issue pretty deeply, or they have personal knowledge of the issue that the professed experts do not have.

Of course, there are many issues that are about values and not about data and research. But I still urge you to be careful, as there are people called philosophers who have thought long and hard about how to select values and then align these values to actions.

In Sum

When it comes to opinions, there’s no free lunch. If you want to have an opinion, do your homework.

Meta-Complication

There do seem to be some issues where the wisdom of crowds (foolish opinions) is more accurate than expert opinion.

After an expert has identified such an issue, please do feel free to articulate your opinion on an issue which you have no real knowledge.

Confessions

I’ve succumbed to opinion fever way too many times. It’s a plague that affects most law school students.

Some of my most notable foolish opinions include:

  • I once weighed in on whether or not the Fed should utilize NGDP targeting.
  • I used to hold strong opinions about when the singularity will occur.
  • I argued for socialism as a freshman in college, and my arguments were mostly based on the price of airline tickets from Chicago to New Orleans.
  • I supported the Iraq war.
  • I thought we could close Connecticut’s achievement gaps by giving more money to school districts.

I could go on, but I worry that you’ll stop reading this blog.

I promise that I’ve gotten (somewhat) better.

Unfortuantely, I have a high risk profile for ungrounded opinions. It’s a daily struggle.

3 thoughts on “You Shouldn’t Have an Opinion on Most Issues

  1. Ciro Curbelo

    I think the thing this sentiment overlooks is that when it comes to public policy, “experts” are really special interests who have their own (usually self-serving) motivations. “Experts” – especially those who yield influence, are therefore never unbiased. In this context, the opinions of laypeople are perfectly fine to add to the mix. Besides – what public policy topic isn’t ultimately about values – should we have the death penalty? A perfectly rational response is values based, e.g., “No, I don’t want my tax dollars being used to kill anyone”. You can extend this to just every public policy area.

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    Reply

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