Why 'Strong Opinions Weakly Held'

Origins of the phrase

The title of this blog is Strong Opinions, Weakly Held. The same concept shows up elsewhere are Strong Opinions Loosely Held. An eponymous essay by Paul Saffo in [1] introduced the world to this concept.

In his essay – which isn’t very long if you would like to read the whole thing yourself – he lays out the concept as follows:

I have found that the fastest way to an effective forecast is often through a sequence of lousy forecasts. Instead of withholding judgment until an exhaustive search for data is complete, I will force myself to make a tentative forecast based on the information available, and then systematically tear it apart, using the insights gained to guide my search for further indicators and information.

Criticism

Cedric Chin’s critique [2] comes down to two points that the author summarizes as follows:

In my experience, ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ is difficult to put into practice. Most people who try will either:

  1. Use it as downside-protection to justify their strongly-held bad opinions, or
  2. Struggle to shift from one strong opinion to another.

The reason it is difficult is because it works against the grain of the human mind.

So don’t bother. The next time you find yourself making a judgment, don’t invoke ‘strong opinions, weakly held.’ Instead, ask: “how much are you willing to bet on that?” Doing so will jolt people into the types of thinking you want to encourage.

Michael Natkin on [3] points out the fallacy of assuming that strong opinions will be reliably challenged:

The idea of strong opinions, loosely held is that you can make bombastic statements, and everyone should implicitly assume that you’ll happily change your mind in a heartbeat if new data suggests you are wrong. It is supposed to lead to a collegial, competitive environment in which ideas get a vigorous defense, the best of them survive, and no-one gets their feelings hurt in the process.

[…]

What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.

Reconciliation

Both cases above illustrate the damage caused by the disconnect between the holder of the opinion and others about the degree of confidence with which the opinion is held. A strongly held – and thusly communicated – opinion has a higher chance of being misinterpreted as conviction.

Saffo’s original claim still holds that having a potentially inaccurate position is better than having none at all. Such a position elicits arguments and opens up avenues for investigation that wouldn’t otherwise materialize in the absence of any other catalyst.

Cedric Chin’s essay points out a simple fix, where the holder of the opinion also states the degree of confidence. This is meant to dress up the opinion more as a target than a decree, thus inviting debate instead of suppressing. I believe this to be good advice.

Back in my college days, I remember a particularly engaging professor asking a question like “is claim A true or is claim B true?” After observing a lackluster show of hands he remarked that of the three groups of students – those that chose A, those that chose B, and those that chose neither – the group that will leave the lecture having learned the most is the group that gets the answer wrong. He advised all of us to “get some skin in the game,” even if you don’t know the answer.

There is some truth to this. Of course a corporate meeting where we need to elicit debate from a group of people with varying levels of confidence is a very different venue than a group of students answering a question. But a similar principle still applies. The goals might be different, but it’s still better to cajole everyone to get some skin in the game instead of not passive silence.

What ‘Strong Opinions Weakly Held’ Means To Me

  1. Having an opinion is better than not having one. Accmulation of raw data is great, but it’s even better when you intentionally accrete them into something meaningful. Any interpretation of information beyond establishment of fact is probably going to be in the realm of opinion.

  2. An opinion expressed is better than one that is not as long as it’s open for criticism. You wouldn’t find out if you were wrong if you didn’t tell anyone.

  3. That it is weakly held is as important to communicate as the opinion itself. Doing so invites criticism and discussion instead of suppressing them.

References

[1]
“Strong opinions weakly held : Paul saffo,” Sep. 04, 2020. https://www.saffo.com/02008/07/26/strong-opinions-weakly-held/ (accessed Sep. 04, 2020).
[2]
‘Strong opinions, weakly held’ doesn’t work that well,” Sep. 04, 2020. https://commoncog.com/blog/strong-opinions-weakly-held-is-bad/ (accessed Sep. 04, 2020).
[3]
“Strong opinions loosely held might be the worst idea in tech - the glowforge blog,” Sep. 04, 2020. https://blog.glowforge.com/strong-opinions-loosely-held-might-be-the-worst-idea-in-tech/ (accessed Sep. 04, 2020).

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