I listen to you time and time again, while you tell me just what’s right…
Kansas City, by Marcus Mumford
Political seasons have a way of swinging wide the floodgates for opinions across a great many topics. Experts on guns, abortion, market economies, foreign policy, crime, climate change, and taxation emerge from the woodwork. These and other subjects fill political stump speeches, campaign narratives, and op-ed columns. The proclivity for loudly voicing one’s thoughts is endemic in the public too. Social media sites have made opinion expression a cottage industry that runs 24/7, 365 days per year. Since anything worth doing is worth doing well, I’d like to offer a bit of what I hope will be useful advice if you’re looking to jump into the fray of opinion sharing.
Surprisingly, I think many folks underestimate what they would need to do in order to gestate a truly informed opinion. It’s a tall task, to be sure, but I’ve devised a simple instrument that might help. Below is checklist that can be consulted prior to formulating an opinion and unleashing it on the rest of us.
I. Understand Causality
Does X cause Y? It sounds basic, but misunderstandings regarding causality are pervasive. This is problematic because when people promulgate their strong opinions they often come packaged with a causal argument of some variety in tow. Despite the intuitiveness of many causal arguments, the natural world is fantastically adept at deceiving us, making causal inference incredibly difficult.
Consider a point that I always try and make clear to my research methods and statistics students every semester; our intuitions generally suck as a detector of causal effects in the world. You might think we’d be better at causal inference given that there are really only three basic criteria for establishing causality: time order (X comes before Y), association (X and Y tend to co-occur with one another), and ruling out spuriousness.
It’s this last one that really kinks up the whole hose. The first two make sense, if X happens and Y generally tends to follow X, the first two criteria are satisfied. That third point — spuriousness — is the real fly in the ointment. It means you have to make sure that there is nothing else that is responsible for causing both X and Y to happen. Let me put it another way, the essence of “spuriousness” (or you might also use the word “confounding”) is that even though you think X causes Y, when you take account of Z (a third variable that predicts both X and Y), the effect of X on Y goes away—the causal effect is an illusion!
In a previous essay, I used the example of parenting effects to illustrate this point. If you want to know whether certain parenting styles impact child development, you must control for genetic factors, failure to do so means that you’re clueless as to the precise nature of your findings. As it turns out, when you do control for genes, parenting influences are minimal to non-existent on personality development in children.
Let’s have another example, though, to further illustrate the point. The abundance of guns in America is often used as a launching pad in political and social media debates. There is no shortage of research on guns and crime and purveyors of strong opinions usually traffic in this research, in some form or fashion. What many seem to forget, though, is that research on guns and crime is subject to the exact same criteria for causality as anything else. It matters not one iota how obvious it is to you that guns either have, or don’t have, an influence on crime. Making a causal argument about anything, gun effects included, is hard.
A former professor of mine at Florida State University, Gary Kleck, has made a career studying guns. In a recent paper reviewing prior evidence on guns and the overall crime rate, Gary pointed out that studies that do a poor job controlling for confounders (this is another way of saying they do less of a good job dealing with spuriousness) typically find gun effects. More rigorously controlled studies do not.
I’m sure the previous paragraphs have infuriated both parenting advocates and gun critics. But if you’re now infuriated, you missed the point. The parenting literature and gun literature (any body of scientific research, for that matter) are subject to change as more research accumulates, so that’s not really what the main issue is here. Let’s assume you want to contribute a strong, well-informed opinion about either topic. The real question is what prep work would you need to do in order to achieve that goal?
For starters, you need to know about factors that might predict both gun ownership and violent behavior with a gun (as an interesting aside concerning guns, our own research has revealed that genetic factors play a meaningful role in predicting handgun ownership; but this is generally ignored by gun scholars). In regards to parenting, it’s essential to be conversant about the role that genetic factors play in both childhood personality development and parenting styles. Remember, parents and children share genetic material, so any association between what parents do and how kids act could simply be the product of this shared genetic overlap. Put even more simply, unless you’re familiar with decades of behavior genetics research, it’s best to maintain softer opinions regarding the role that parents play in child development.
Think about it this way, too. It’s not sufficient to just be closely acquainted with the scientific research on a given topic. What good does a hundred scientific studies do you, if they are all confounded and misleading? Simply pointing to studies that support your arguments puts you in the minor league of opinion holders. You must cultivate a deeper knowledge by also being capable of articulating lurking factors that might render an association between any two variables spurious. Doing this requires more effort than reading a newspaper article or magazine column; including this one.
I find it interesting that people seem less willing to fiercely opine about some aspect of quantum computing, astrophysics, or general relativity. Yet, many will often proudly pronounce their certainty about child development, economic policy, or tax reform. You’ve never seen a quark, or an atom, or glimpsed the event horizon of a black hole so you wisely sidestep these topics. It’s no less of an error in logic, however, to be overly confident that your experience raising children offers some deep insight into the reasons why children develop as they do. It’s useful to pause and appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to say that X causes Y, and to do so with any degree of certainty. Knowing and appreciating the criteria for causality will not guarantee the correctness of your opinion but it will ensure that you have something useful to contribute to the dialogue. Not knowing it will guarantee that your contribution is sound and fury, nothing more.
II. Be politically and religiously agnostic when forming your opinion.
If one wants to nurture meaningful opinions, you cannot let them be polluted by dogma or superstition in any form, either political or religious. As I’m sure you’ve observed, the two often bleed together. Politicians are quite happy to trot out their respective ideas about how religious faith governs their beliefs and how this will guide their actions in office. In America, this is arguably more important for candidates pandering to a politically conservative base, but it applies also to liberals. In the south, where I am from, you had better love Jesus (no other deity substitutions are available) if you want to be found fit to govern (being an atheist doesn’t exactly up your chances). In the current election, Dr. Ben Carson has been vocal about his suspicion of evolutionary theory in general, and its relevance to human beings in particular. None of the candidates, regardless of affiliation, are likely to trot out the latest insight from evolutionary psychology in order to make a point about human nature. Given the bubbling cauldron of political correctness, they are also unlikely to discuss the relevance of something like general intelligence much either, despite its repeated empirical association with successful functioning in the world.
The real world chugs along just fine, never feeling the need to curtsy to our political intuitions. Sea levels rise or fall outside of political affiliation. Genetic factors make some humans smarter than others, outside of religious yearning. Every species on this planet arose by natural selection, despite our wishing that it might have happened some other way. It becomes embarrassing when one allows their political leanings or their religious affiliation to color their opinions about the world. If your desire is to formulate and promulgate an empirically rigorous opinion, then it means setting religious and political affiliation aside and dealing with the natural world as it presents itself (within the confines of point number 1, of course).
This is far from a new insight, many of the so-called new atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc.) have made it forcefully, yet the need for political and religious agnosticism is important enough that it warrants repeating again, and again, until the point lands in the public. Forcing one’s opinion to fall in lockstep with religious or political affiliation is a bad approach for having a meaningful opinion.
At this point, you might protest that science (and the insight about causality that it offers) is unlikely to suffice for every topic you might want to form an opinion about. Will point number 1 help us discern who the greatest guitarist of all time is, for instance (in this case, we know it’s Jimi Hendrix, discussion over)? Perhaps not, and indeed some arguments might be more amenable to the use of raw reason or philosophical insight. Fair enough, but that still doesn’t call for religious dogma or political posturing.
Additionally, I think it’s reasonable to maintain that even the most philosophical of points will often draw on some form of a causal argument related to point 1. Abortion, for instance, is always a relevant topic in public discourse. I will not suggest to you that science has the capacity to tell us everything we need to know about the ethics of allowing — or not allowing — abortions to take place. But knowing something about human embryonic development, and the development of the central nervous system at every stage across all three trimesters, offers more insight than vacuously opining about the point at which the soul erupts within the developing fetus. That’s a meaningless exercise that promises nothing more than rancor and disagreement (for lengthier and more thorough treatments of this and related issues, see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape). Again, this is not to say that science will bring us in to uniform agreement about abortion. The issue here, is not whether your opinion is necessarily guaranteed to be correct, I’m only trying to help you have a seat at the table of meaningful discourse. There are meaningful opinions to be heard on the issue of abortion on both sides.
III. Willingness to be wrong
How comfortable are you with being wrong? You might want to ponder this a bit, because an opinion worth holding is also one that’s worth giving up under certain circumstances. Opinions can walk a fine line with political dogma or religious belief if one isn’t paying close attention. Strong opinions have a way of galvanizing themselves into something more concrete, to the point where it’s hard to distinguish opinion from religious conviction. This is why point 3 comes in conjunction with points 1 and 2. In science, we’re often wrong.
Being wrong is not a criminal act. No one is keeping score — though it may seem like it at times — and changing one’s opinions is not a weakness, disease, or moral affliction. It’s an admirable quality. Rarely will you have the experience of always being right about everything. Bull-headed stubbornness is not an indicator of your moral constitution.
I always find it fascinating when politicians suffer the slings and arrows of “changing their mind.” Why is this not an endearing quality? Why do we persistently require unflinching dogmatism in our leaders? Let’s assume that one day a huge body of good scientific evidence was amassed regarding the role that welfare plays in generating more negative than positive outcomes in society. A politician on either side who is adhering to points 1 and 2 should see and recognize the evidence. However, if they fail at point 3 (assuming their prior views were in conflict with the evidence), then what does it matter?
No one can provide you the ability to be right under all circumstances and that’s not what I’m offering. Everyone is entitled to his or hers own opinions, they’re completely allowed to plaster those opinions on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and wherever else they wish, for the entire world to see. I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing that. I simply wanted to offer you a short checklist that you can use if you want to formulate a meaningful opinion, one that is worth hearing and holding. There are only three boxes on the checklist—1) understand causality, 2) be politically and religiously agnostic when forming your opinion, and 3) be willing to change your opinion — and notice not one of them requires holding an advanced degree, belonging to a certain socioeconomic status, or any other qualifiers at all, really.
I’ll admit that these three points are often hard to implement. We are, after all, products of natural selection that weren’t “designed” to formulate a perfect understanding of the natural world (for an introduction of how our minds were designed, see Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Nonetheless, if we strive as best we can on all three what we might very well create is a rich and diverse “marketplace of ideas and opinions” from which we can select the very best opinions.
As a final point, don’t forget that a good opinion does not have to even be correct, necessarily. Despite being wrong it can shove us as a society in the right direction. It can act as a beacon toward truth. A good opinion only has to adhere to the three points, and if it does, it has a wonderful capacity to still reveal truth, but in that instance it does so by illuminating how the world doesn’t work. Even that is an opinion worth having and sharing.[a] Go forth now and form your opinions, just be mindful that doing it well is a taller task than you might have anticipated.
[a] The essence of the arguments included here has been presented quite eloquently in a variety of other forms and in different outlets (As a colleague reminded me, Carl Sagan and Neal DeGrasse Tyson in the series Cosmos wonderfully capture the essence of how to form truly meaningful opinions).
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