Opinions can be dangerous. The perspective I adopted yesterday can adversely affect the way I assimilate information tomorrow. If I’m not careful, a poorly formed opinion will dramatically undermine my intellectual growth and emotional maturity.
On some level, we all know that not every opinion is a good one. Some are considerably more rational and sophisticated than others. The problem is that we always assume the rational ones are ours.
Are there practices that will help us develop healthier and better informed opinions? Yes! I put together 5 things you can start doing right now to help you develop opinions that don’t suck.
And since a majority of my readers are Christians, I’ve included a special response to some imagined Christian objections.
1. Quit assuming you’re objective
We all assume that we see the world as it is. This naïve realism concludes that the people who agree with us are wise and intuitive and those who don’t are biased and intellectually lazy. But it’s just not true.
The way we see the world around us is influenced by so many factors: our upbringing, our cultural context, our education, where we get our information, and so many other components. The very brain we use to make sense of the world is an untrustworthy narrator filling in informational holes with unreliable perceptions, attitudes, and impressions.
Things start moving forward when you realize that your opinions are being formed in a relatively closed system, and you’re not necessarily more intuitive or unbiased than anyone else.
“The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.”
The first step in combating naïve realism is by being aware of it. As historian Jacob Burckhardt said, “The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.” Once we begin to see the complexities involved in issues and ideas, we’ll become more skeptical of the information our brains so easily spits out in response.
The second thing we can do is intentionally feed our brain information from outside of our experience instead of looking for information that simply justifies the way we already perceives things. Read opinions you don’t agree with — not to argue with them, per se, but to understand them. Read new and unfamiliar opinions and information. The more we expose our minds to, the less likely our brain will just be a cul de sac.
For the Christian:
“If I don’t protect myself from ideas I don’t agree with, I run the risk of led astray by the wrong kind of information. It’s dangerous to entertain contrary ideas.”
I would challenge you to think through this response. What would you say to a follower of Jim Jones or David Koresh who had similar objections? The very fact that they refused to entertain contrary ideas kept them imprisoned in a system that eventually killed them.
If your faith is built upon embracing certain conclusions and avoiding conflicting information (or filtering it through someone else who shares your views), you really need to ask yourself if it’s a faith worth having. If it’s true, it’ll stand up to the press of differing beliefs. Who knows, it might even make your faith bigger and stronger.
2. Assume your beliefs will evolve
As I’ve said before, I don’t really trust anyone who believes everything at 50 that they believed at 20. For a majority of mature people, ideas evolve and change and, as we develop, we find we’re able to hold important values without excluding and alienating others.
The knowledge that your views might change over time doesn’t mean you have to keep them to yourself. But it does add a certain humility to your perspective when you’re willing to assume that how you see things could develop or change.
Knowing that things will change should help you to disagree with others without all the sharp edges and condescension.
For the Christian:
“My beliefs won’t ‘evolve.’ I believe what the Bible tells me and therefore already I believe everything that I will ever need.”
If you think about every contrary viewpoint that falls under the umbrella of “orthodoxy,” it’s crazy to assume that you’ve somehow accidentally arrived in the correct place in regards to every theological question. The question here isn’t about the Bible, as much as it’s about interpretation and understanding. If you don’t think there’s any chance that your understanding or opinions will ever change, you’re going to do a lot of damage to your relationships.
I know Christians whose children have come out of the closet, and they responded based on views they believed would remain forever static. Some parents kicked their kids out. Some parents tried to “reprogram” them. Some parents just refused to talk to their kids about the issue.
Years later, when the parents perspective had softened (or even changed), too much damage had been done. Damage that would have been mitigated if they’d been willing to say to themselves, “I feel strongly about this right now, but this is my child. And there’s a chance my views will change — but my desire to have a relationship with them never will.”
3. Be mindful of how you gather and internalize information
Where confirmation bias actively searches out and interprets information in a way that reinforces our opinions, biased assimilation treats complimentary information with less scrutiny than it treats contradictory information. Both confirmation bias and biased assimilation are detrimental to intelligent minds.
Confirmation bias ensure you never read anything you don’t agree with, and biased assimilation guarantees that if you do, you’ll dismiss it.
Developing trustworthy opinions means reading, discussing, and understanding thoughts you might not agree with.
It’s easy to get to a place where we’re cherry picking information that corresponds with our established narrative. In fact, the way Google and Facebook offers you information doesn’t help. Search engines and social media are always at work curating links and news that you’ve demonstrated that you’ll consume.
If you tend to only read liberal think pieces, eventually that’s all you’ll receive. You might think, “that’s great!” But is it? Developing trustworthy opinions means reading, discussing, and understanding thoughts you might not agree with.
For the Christian:
“You need to be careful; you could be led astray by bad information. That’s why I don’t tend to stray too far from data that I know is safe.”
This is one of the reasons that Christians often lack credibility. What we know about alternative viewpoints is filtered through someone who agrees with us, and the only reason that we learn about it is to refute it. This has to stop.
Either you follow Christ because you believe the gospel is true, or you follow him because you want it to be true. I promise you that if the gospel is true, it will stand up against contradictory ideas. And if it isn’t true, then why bother protecting it from other beliefs?
4. Learn to enjoy being wrong
I shared an ignorant update the other day and got called out on it. I took it down and apologized, and someone commented, “At least you’ll admit when you’re wrong.” I can’t think of a better compliment. As I told her, “My credibility isn’t built on being right; it’s built on a willingness to be wrong.”
I think it’s a problem that in a world without a lot of certainty, there are so many people convinced they’re right.
The trick is in learning to be strongly convinced, while holding your opinion loosely enough to be corrected. When you’re willing to admit you’re wrong, you find that you’re a lot more intentional in the way you construct your ideas.
For the Christian:
“There are some things I’m willing to be wrong about, and some that I am not. If the Bible says it, then that’s all I need. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
I completely get it. I really do. But here’s the thing. . . I know so many people who are convinced about what they believe the Bible says, and they’re wrong. Aren’t there areas of your faith that are extrapolations or interpretations? Are you right about your opinion on things like the end times or Israel/Palestine, or have you accepted an interpretive perspective from your tribe?
The humility so revered in Christianity has to be present in the posture we take towards our beliefs and the beliefs of others.
5. Embrace skepticism and curiosity
Intelligence doesn’t inoculate you against gullibility. Smart people fall victim to questionable beliefs, ideas, conspiracy theories, and hoaxes all the time. Oddly enough, Scientologists aren’t typically simpletons, and many of the individuals who lost millions of dollars to Bernie Madoff were educated masters of industry.
Don’t mistake the skeptic for a cynic or a pessimist. The skeptic is simply someone who isn’t easily convinced. They’re poking and prodding at an idea from all angles, and enjoy the work of questioning presuppositions.
Skepticism is the method a healthy mind uses to come to conclusions.
There’s nothing wrong or morbid about questioning things; never let anyone tell you differently. Skepticism is the method a healthy mind uses to come to conclusions. It is the first step on the road towards unfettered thinking.
And don’t just question the information that comes from without. Question the things you think as well. Sometimes our reasoning facilities are betrayed by assuming our own presuppositions, beliefs, and ideas are completely accurate. Be as willing to roast your own sacred cows as you are anyone else’s. It’s the only path towards intellectual honesty and real humility.
For the Christian:
“If all you ever do is question everything, then how will you ever believe anything? Faith requires taking that step from what you don’t know towards what you believe to be true.”
There is some truth to this. Faith isn’t certainty, and you have to eventually go all in or cash out. The thing is that you want to set yourself up with a good jumping-off point for making that faith leap.
Typically Christians who would question the validity of skepticism would encourage everyone else to be skeptical of their faith and convictions. If you that doesn’t seem the least bit disingenuous to you, I’m not sure what to say. If we want others to ask tough questions of their beliefs, we need to be willing to do the same with ours.
In the end, we’re all going to have opinions. Why don’t we make them opinions worth having?