Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Your opinion is worthless

This is a slightly self-indulgent post, relating to website and forum discussions, rather than a generally-applicable epiphanette. Nevertheless, I think it's an important point, and one which far too few people understand...

I find when browsing internet discussion forums, when someone with a controversial or non-mainstream opinions posts and gets voted down I frequently run across run across comments similar to the following:

I find I get downmodded a lot because I'm a person willing to speak my mind. That makes a lot of the insecure people here (of which there are many!) uncomfortable, and to try and counter that they downmod my posts.

Straight to it: although sometimes the commenter has a point (people get very attached to their ideas, and can react irrationally when they're threatened), general attitudes like this always make me uncomfortable, because they smack of self-delusion and comfort-beliefs.

Everyone has some element of this in their thinking, but it's rarely justified. As an experiment, consider the following:

Aside from your own clearly-biased personal opinion of your posts, what evidence do you have that your thoughts or beliefs are generally:

  1. Insightful
  2. Interesting
  3. Well-expressed, or
  4. Correct?

Secondly, how many people - even really stupid, boring people - do you think get up in the morning, look in the mirror and think "shit man, I'm a really windy, boring, unoriginal fucker", and then spend a lot of time expressing their opinions to others?

Most people think what they have to say is insightful, interesting, adequately-expressed and correct, or they wouldn't bother posting it.

Now, this idea is correct in that some people vote down anything which contradicts the prevailing wisdom, but people also vote down things which are wrong, stupid, ridiculous or badly-expressed.

Conversely, I know from repeated personal experience that in many communities a well-written, well-argued, non-whingey post which counters the prevailing wisdom frequently still gets a high score, sometimes because of its contrary position.

I know when I post all I have to go on is my own opinion of my posts, which (as we've established) is almost laughably unreliable. Instead, the votes my posts get serve as a useful barometer of how much my opinion of a well-written, well-argued post compares with the general opinion.

It's terribly flattering to think of oneself as a persecuted martyr, but it also usually requires a lot of egotism and a willing blindness to statistics.

To quote the great Carl Sagan:

They laughed at Galileo... but they also laughed at Bozo the clown.

Given a poster's personal opinion is biased to the point it's worthless, and given there are many more clowns in the world than misunderstood geniuses, on what basis do people claim to be downmodded for the content of their opinions, rather than for their worth, or the reliability of the arguments they use to support them?

Claiming you're being downvoted simply because your opinions run counter to the prevailing wisdom, rather than simply because you're self-important or wrong requires you to not only assume you're vastly more intelligent or educated than the average person, but also that most people voting you down are doing so because of a deficiency in their psychology, rather than your own.

When all the objective evidence you have is that a lot of other people disagree with you, it's terribly tempting to believe you're a misunderstood intellectual martyr like Galileo.

The trouble with this, of course, is that while paradigm-shifting geniuses like Galileo only come along a few times a generation, we're knee-deep in idiots, and the tide is rising.

There are literally thousands of times more idiots than geniuses, so claiming you must be a genius on the basis you were voted down doesn't mean you're a genius - it means not only are you overwhelmingly likely to be a self-important idiot, but you're also bad at maths.

Act appropriately.


JoeJag said...

Unfortunately we live in a democracy and not a meritocracy.

Say I posted a comment on how I used language X to improve performance on the same task over using language Y. If people prefer Y over X then the emotionally attached majority will downvote regardless on how well reasoned the comment was.

The expressed opinion isn't just seen as worthless, it has to be buried and shown to be heresy.