Life, communication, programming, it’s all about structuring a rational argument. But too many people are either unable to, or are unwilling to, rationalize.
"I hold this opinion because I've read the facts and thought it through" matters. "I hold this opinion, and that's it" doesn't.
Whether the argument is about creative design, system architecture, which restaurant to eat at or politics and religion, it’s critically important to express, clarify and declare the rationalization behind it. Failure to do so, or the inability to do so, changes the argument from a rational, reasonable one, to a waste of time, words, and emotions. Unfortunately, rational discourse has given way to spin, faith, linguistic traps, talking points, lies and misrepresentations that are treated with the respect they do not deserve.
Having taught people who think "it's my opinion and you can't tell me I'm wrong" I see how important the skills of rational argument are.
The only way to beat irrational discourse is not to partake in it, and to avoid people who do. It’s not easy, and sometimes not possible, but an irrationally held belief or opinion will not be swayed by rational facts, and I don’t know why. Maybe its laziness, maybe its a comfort factor, maybe it conformity, maybe it’s to avoid being embarrassed or being perceived as wrong, maybe its just plain stupidity, I do not know.
Whenever I express an opinion, I always complete the sentence with “and this is why”. It’s a habit I got into years ago, taught to me by a friend I worked with. He is a very intelligent and persuasive person, and the secret to his persuasiveness is his ability to express an opinion and then explain why – clearly, unambiguously and with factual support. I’m not saying he was never wrong, he was. But when presented with a rational counter, he was smart enough to listen, absorb, understand the counter, and change his position to the one the facts and rational argument led him to. And when faced with an irrational counter, he walked away.
One of the big problems with Twitter is that 140 characters is not enough space to add the “and this is why” part to a tweeted opinion. One of the big problems with Hacker News, Reddit and the Disqus forums I use, is that most commenters do not include an “and this is why” component to their responses. The 30 second sound byte on the news has no time for an “and this is why”. I don’t know why we accept this kind of behavior, it’s become the new norm, and it’s wrong. Why? It’s too easy to express an opinion, it’s much harder to think one through, explain it and defend it.
One of the reasons I prefer both reading and writing long form blog posts is because these usually have the “and this is why” component. They open my mind up to new ideas, they help me understand my own opinions, they help me find the positions that I should take because the facts presented lead me there. I seek those discussions that support my opinions, and I seek, with the same determination, those that oppose my opinions. But I only spend the time to absorb those supported by clear, supported, facts. I can only rationalize, express and argue my opinions if I understand both the pro and con positions. And, of course, I choose the opinion where there are facts on one side, and none on the other.
And maybe that’s what this is all really about. Opinions are a choice, we choose them. We can be lazy and just follow the crowd, sharing other people’s opinions without trying to understand the choice or the opinion, and slavishly repeat their mantras. Or we can take the time to study the facts, learn the truth, understand the consequences and choose the right opinion to support and express.
So next time you express an opinion, add “and this is why”. Try it. Then continue on to explain why you hold the expressed opinion. It won’t be easy, but it will teach you how to structure a rational argument. It will teach you how to think through, understand and solve problems. It will teach you to think about your choices of opinions. And make you a better communicator, programmer and person.
This post was triggered when I randomly saw the two quoted tweets by Ian Betteridge. He wrote them in a different context, this is how I perceived them in my context.