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Strong opinions, loosely held as a default is nonsense

Posted on:February 3, 2024

One of the most puzzling principles I’ve encountered in the tech world is “strong opinions, weakly held,” sometimes called “strong opinions, loosely held.” Upon reading Paul Saffo’s original essay on the topic, it seems that, like many ideas, the true spirit behind it has probably been diluted or lost over time. Paul described this principle as a way to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, which can be a valuable default in certain contexts. So it may not be Paul’s take I disagree with, as much as the way in which it’s parroted these days.

I agree it’s important to have conviction in one’s ideas sometimes. But I find it perposterous to assume that having strong opinions should be the baseline when we often lack enough knowledge on a subject. If you haven’t thought deeply about something or researched it, it’s typically wiser to consult an expert or investigate further rather than rushing to judgment. But that’s not what this mantra encourages people to do.

Instead, it tells people that a conclusion is more valuable than the truth, which is already what people do naturally, because it’s easier. In Paul’s defense, he’s actually interested in getting to the truth, and suggesting that the fastest way to get to there is by having some hypothesis that could be disproved.

And again, I don’t necessarily disagree with that idea, I just don’t think many people typically re-evaluate their stances like he suggests, so this principle just gives them license to have strong opinions when they shouldn’t. And then we all have to deal with the negative consequences of these premature conclusions as they permeate all around us. The tendency towards hasty opinions and decisions pervades both tech communities and society at large, underlining the widespread promotion of this type of thinking.

Regarding the “loosely held” aspect, it’s certainly beneficial to change your mind when confronted with new information and to evolve your thinking. My issue isn’t with that part either. However, whether you have strong or weak opinions and whether you hold them tightly or loosely should depend on the topic at hand. With some things, you probably should hold your opinions strongly! You may have good reason to, based on the depth of your experience or thinking about it.

So, I urge you not to uncritically embrace catchy sayings just because they’re popular. And that’s a strong opinion I hold quite firmly.