On Opinion and Quality of Judgement

Recently I was asked my opinion on anthropogenic global warming. In the ensuing discussion, there was criticism of my rejection of “the majority opinion of ‘experts'” as a good or valid method to base my position. Having rejected that, I was asked by what means, if not the majority of experts, would I personal espouse as how to base your belief or understanding of the truth behind a matter which is in contention. In the following, first I lay out a number of different methods that people use to form opinions, next I briefly describe the two methods I try to follow. 

Some of the ways people use to form opinions include:

  1. By aligning their belief or opinion with what is commonly held, i.e., follow their perception as to where the conventional wisdom lies. 
  2. By aligning their belief or opinion with what is commonly held by a subgroup they view as elite. Subgroups felt as “superior” typically included things like tribal or idealogical affiliation to which one belongs or as noted above those who are deemed “expert” by some sub-community. 
  3. Or by aligning your belief or opinion with the state opinion of a single person, who in your opinion has both superior knowledge in this matter and that through your general appreciation of the quality of discernment of that individual you trust their judgement on that matter over your own.
  4. And finally, by acquiring for yourself enough personal expertise in the matter to trust your own judgement.

The first three of these methods are ‘exterior’ in that the opinion so formed on a matter is not made internally but received externally. 

The better more solid method of forming opinion is the fourth, that is to acquire personal knowledge in that matter yourself. The term personal knowledge here is not accidental. The excellent book on the philosophy of science book by Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. Mr Polanyi makes a number of important points about science. Two of the important points I want to take for this little essay on what we know is that first of all most of science is ineffable and secondly that this knowledge, while largely ineffable is real. An example from his book might demonstrate this point.

Early in Mr Polanyi’s career he was taking some coursework in medical school. As part of medical school they learned to ‘read’ radiographic (x-ray) films. The process of learning was tedious. They would be shown slide after slide of films. In each film they would be told what the experts could glean from that film. After some time, they too began to see the same things in displays of shadows and swirls. The knowledge of “what” made for a significant feature in an image was not something which could be explained with words. This ability was something which had to be acquired personally. At the same time, it was a real expertise. What was read in the film by an expert is a reliable diagnostic indicator of what is being probed. It’s just that an outsider, one who has not undergone the apprenticeship and training cannot perform that task.

These methods of knowing or of forming opinion in a matter have been presented in reverse order of reliability. Method #1 above is really bad. In recent years, I have discovered that conventional teaching/wisdom is very often 100% exactly wrong, e.g., the BEF in WWI was hidebound and resistant to innovation. As for #2, believing in something just because a particular group also holds that belief and you have sympathy with them is a particularly bad reason for doing so. It is also really really hard not to fall into doing that in real life. But that is why we laud and personally attempt to live self-examined lives. It is what it means to do so. These beliefs in categories #1 and #2 are those which we should be willing to set aside.

The key reliable knowing and belief is a connection to personal knowledge in a matter. What is desired then is to personally acquire knowledge on a question you find important or to form a personal connection with someone whose judgement and reliability you can discern for yourself and who has acquired that expertise themselves. 

So if you want to state an opinion of the correctness and reliability of thing, eschew methods #1 and #2 and seek a human reliable connection to personal expertise. So as to the question of A-GW vs non-A-GW … if I personally thought that was an important question, the first steps to take would be to download/obtain some data sets and brush up on using an analysis package like “R” as well as starting to work through some papers and research material that is topical. To acquire a personal understanding of the character of the data and analysis. Failing that (if for example I lacked the time or aptitude to do so) I would locate an individual who could or had acquired that understanding and form a strong enough relationship with them to ascertain for myself the reliability of their opinion. If I felt it was solid, then that opinion is one that I too would then follow.

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  1. #4 is only superior if you are both capable enough AND unbiased enough to reach a good conclusion. Almost nobody is. Absolute geniuses like Plato reached *ridiculously* wrong conclusions using this technique.

    Your #2 is dishonest, conflating scientific experts with the popular kids in high school. Scientific experts are sui generis — the whole purpose of the scientific method was to overcome the enormous failures of humankind when they relied on #4. For millennia, people used #4 and hardly made any progress in understanding the universe. As soon as we started going with the scientific method, actual true knowledge took off exponentially.

    People are fallible and have enormous cognitive biases. Once every few generations an Einstein comes around who can do better by #4 than by #2. (And then within one generation his conclusions become part of #2, because #2 tracks the truth.) You are not Einstein.

    Even your radiologist is being taught by #2. It’s not like he just grabbed a bunch of films and tried to figure them out himself.

  2. Mark says:

    My #2 is not dishonest. It is what I perceive people doing.

    Even your radiologist is being taught by #2. It’s not like he just grabbed a bunch of films and tried to figure them out himself.

    No. No. No. The radiologist is not taught by #2, and he didn’t “figure it out” by himself. He was taught by someone who had already done #4. That is how science progresses. #4s teaches others to become #4 themselves. That is in fact the scientific method.

    I have not claimed to be Einstein. #4 is not “a new Einstein” it is the process of acquiring the expertise for yourself from those who have done the same.

  3. Wouldn’t the climate scientists be #4s then? People who put in the time to become experts?

    So since you personally haven’t put in the time, wouldn’t it make sense to trust those who have? The vast majority of whom believe in AGW?

  4. Mark says:

    If I haven’t put in the time, the preferable fall-back recourse is #3 not #2.

    #2 I regard as unreliable, the ‘un-self examined’ case.

  5. So who’s your number #3?

  6. Mark says:

    With regard to what? AGW? I don’t think AGW is very important so I haven’t seen the need to find one.

    As I noted before, my opinion on AGW is that climate is a non-linear system not often close to equilibrium. I almost chose to do my studies for my degree in non-linear dynamics … and have some appreciation for that topic (#4). I haven’t seen anybody writing on climate that would contradict that claim, i.e., that it is non-linear or not close to equilibrium. Are you suggesting that this is not the case?

  7. Which # did you use to decide that AGW isn’t important?