Is "Strong Opinions, weakly held" good advice?
I make a dive into the origins of this term. What does it mean? When does it make sense?
I've found a compelling argument in "I Don't Hate Arrow Functions by Kyle Simpson" that's about opinions:
I don't subscribe to the "strong opinions, loosely held" mantra. I don't "loosely hold" my opinions because I don't see any point in having an opinion if there isn't sufficient reason for that opinion. I spend a lot of time researching and tinkering and writing and trying out ideas before I form an opinion that I would share publicly. By that point, my opinion is pretty strongly held, by necessity.
Which reminded me that Mateusz Kwaśniewski uses it
I have opinions. Strong ones. Weakly held though. And I read voraciously to back them up.
I didn't really get it why would it make sense? Thanks to Mateusz I've found the source of this advice.
Coined in "Strong Opinions weakly held" by forecaster Paul Saffo
(...) 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, (...).
Since the mid-1980s, my mantra for this process is "strong opinions, weakly held." Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the "strong opinion" part. Then –and this is the "weakly held" part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn't fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction.
I want to add emphasis to the word
process in it:
my mantra for this process is "strong opinions, weakly held."
If you forget the name, imagine what he means by it. Then it makes sense. As a process to follow, it will help you fight "analysis paralysis". Will force you to start working and iterating.
It reminds me of advice like Take small iterative steps or just Agile software development
In its intent, it's like Design thinking. It's a recipe of how to do forecasting.
I've read (in Polish) a book about writing. It's called Magia słów by Joanna Wrycza-Bekier. There is a lot of books like that in English if you're interested. Like Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. Back to the topic.
All will tell you to avoid weak words. Even weak statements or positions are no good. What people want to read are strong opinions. Most people don't want to consider both sides of the argument. May. Maybe. Probably. Should. Shouldn't. You ** can't** use those.
Take a look at a big disclaimer post Strong Opinions, Weakly Held by Jeff Atwood. It's one big explanation of this writing rule to his readers.
There is this a small problem with this advice. Life is not black and white.
Strong opinions. Management consultants are in the business of having opinions and making things happen. Clients don't pay us to give flip-floppy recommendations (long pro/con lists with a lot of "well on the other hand").
source: Strong opinions, loosely held
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it makes sense to hide the complexity from the client. Assure him when he doesn't know much.
On the other picking, one thing is always at the cost of something else. I like that in the article above he advises to:
Socialize the recommendation. As consultants, we don't live at the company, we don't know the history. There may be 3-4 reasons why our recommendations cannot / will not work. Vet your recommendations early in the process.
I always believed in giving people a choice. They can always say "pick the best for me". If they want giving pro/con list seems like the right thing to do. They are going to live with the decision. Not you.
Strong Opinions strongly held #
It seems that a lot of people abuse it. They pick opinions without any respect for the "weakly held" part.
Have you read the Shame Storm?
If not, then read it now.
I'm serious. I can wait :)
It shows one aspect of the problem. Strong opinions. After reading the headline. Maybe skimming the text. After seeing a post on social media. It's not even weak opinion. Even if it was, is it a good thing to make an opinion so easily?
Weak opinions, weakly held #
I've found an interesting comment on hacker news to: Why You Don't Believe In Facts, And How To Fix It
I liked the content, but I didn't like the conclusion. If you have a strong belief I feel like you should be able to strongly hold (i.e. defend) it. The philosophy "strong beliefs, loosely held" will just breed rabid dogs that obey whomever has the most convincing evidence (note that convincing evidence is not necessarily strong evidence).
For example, watch this video:
(it's not avaliable anymore but you can get a gist at reddit)`
Purple is obviously the villain here, right? Grab your pitchforks!
Now read this: reddit
Now it seems clear that the video creator was hiding something and that Purple is justified in their actions. Lynch the youtuber!
Now read the youtuber's response to that and be prepared to grab your pitchforks again...
I'm of the opinion that weak beliefs should be weakly held and strong beliefs should be strongly held. Something that you haven't studied yourself should be a weak belief, weakly held. Something that's only been on the news for a few days with very few actual facts should be a weak belief, weakly held (i.e. Ahmed Mohammed, Michael Brown, etc). Something you've studied or experienced over an extensive period should be a strong belief, strongly held since you are an expert.
ythnon May 10, 2017
Even Paul Saffo at the end encourages the use of strong opinions at the cocktail parties.
It depends #
Best I can do is to use strong statements but add a couple of clauses around them. Few people stating opinions have the right to do so. I like the quote of Charlie Munger:
"I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that
I don't know the other side's argument better than they do."
— Charlie Munger
From this great post on Farnam Street: The Work Required to Have an Opinion
My own summary:
Strong Opinions, weakly held: #
- Makes sense as a process
- Helps with starting
- Use in forecasting
- Makes some sense for consultants
Strong Opinions strongly held: #
- basic stuff (math, common sense)
- things you put effort into learning (can argue for the other side better than they do)
Remember to ask yourself "What could change my mind?"
Weak Opinions, weakly held: #
It makes more sense to withhold opinion if you don't know much.
If you have to guess. And it's not part of some process. Then your opinion should be weak.
If it's a cocktail party and the worst thing that can happen is a friendly argument, then use strong opinions. If consequences can be dire, then use a weak opinion. Maybe :)
Edit 2019.03.30 #
I've got a few comments that made me think.
- First is that IT projects have a high risk of falling. In this context, it may make sense to use strong opinions. It should help get everyone on the same page in the shortest time. Of course, everyone has to be open to change their mind.
- Second is that strong opinion can stifle discussion. Manager or Boss should withhold his opinion. Wait for honest opinions of your employees first. Otherwise, you won't hear them at all.
Update 2020.07.21 #
I've read 'Strong Opinions, Weakly Held' Doesn't Work That Well by Cedric Chin.
It is quite difficult for the human mind to vacillate between one strong opinion to another.
Use probability as an expression of confidence
The gentler answer lies in Superforecasting. In the book, Tetlock presents an analytical framework that is easier to use than Saffo's, while achieving many of the same goals.
- When forming an opinion, phrase it in a way that is very clear, and may be verified by a particular date.
- Then state the probability you are confident that it is correct.
Books he mentions:
- Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock, Dan Gardner
- Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts by Annie Duke
My comments: #
It's a new argument against the mantra that it's not easy for most people to switch to the new idea instantly.
I like how he found another model for thinking to replace it.
Thinking in bets is probably the best name for it. But, by betting on opinions, you're making them
Weak Opinions, weakly held. It's still interesting for me, too see what are the context when each of those variants makes the most sense. #
Update 2021.07.04 #
Don’t Feed the Thought Leaders
Software development is full of confident forecasters. We are a pretty new field, and yet everyone seems so sure that they have the best solution to whatever problem is at hand. I’d like to hear more people saying things like, “in this specific context, test-coverage seem like an important metric,” or “StopLang is great if you can afford the GC, but if you can’t, then you should look at IronOre.” A great tool is not a universal tool it’s a tool well suited to a specific problem.
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