What constitutes an informed opinion? Does it follow one infallible source of truth? Or does it come from integrating many truths into one’s own? How wide do we open our minds when forming our opinions? Do we go narrow and deep into one specific area? Or broad and shallow across the best of various ideas? To what extent do we really challenge the basis of our opinions and others?
When confronted with an unsavoury medical diagnosis we often request the infamous “second opinion”. This is to confirm that the bad news is really as bad as it is being proposed or to seek the lining that may be lurking somewhere in that cloud. I say infamous, as it has been known to provoke more than a bit of scorn. When one esteemed professional’s opinion is not deemed esteemed or professional enough for the layperson who has the audacity to suggest that their first opinion even requires validating.
Your doctor reveals an unexpected diagnosis of your condition and the suggested prognosis for recovery might be so life-changing, that inquiry for the second option of an expert is required just so that the decision can pass the reasonable test of “really, are we sure? Have we double-checked?”. That’s what the second opinion is, the double-check. Surely not beyond the realms of a reasonable request? We double-knot our shoes, forbid we trip and fall, so of course one should double check important life-changing information when it’s presented.
The usual cause of requesting a second opinion lies in the severity of the proposed future should the first opinion be deemed correct. In medical cases, it can involve undergoing chemotherapy and in others, switching off life support. It has consequences of the most intense nature imaginable. Hence it should be agreeable that establishing the relative correctness of the first option should be undertaken. The testing of correctness should extend to its applicable limit, even assessment to determine if this is the correct general course of treatment to be prescribed when there exists alternatives which lie outside the specific discipline which is being consulted in the first place, and within whose boundaries the nature of the testing is defined.
In the case of cancer diagnosis, the second option is often sought when the first opinion diagnoses cancer with a treatment of chemotherapy. A second opinion is then sought, which confirms the diagnosis of cancer hence the prognosis of chemotherapy. In this case, would a second opinion from outside the traditional medical community be of more value in these circumstances? The verdict of cancer is unlikely to be ruled out by any credible alternative medical practitioner, the disagreement may lie in what method makes the optimal treatment. I say optimal because when considering the heavy weight between the physical effects of chemotherapy, the recurrence rates of cancer, and the value of quality of life, a balance must be found which puts the person at the centre of the situation.
Real decisions in realty reality
It’s one of the most life defining moments for many people lives, the purchase of their family home. Signing up for a mortgage with a 10-30 year commitment is a significant commitment and one which involves the opinions of many people in the interaction. The big question, “When is the right time to buy?”, as it applies at both a business and personal level. The value is affected by various market forces which determine the price paid for a property at any given time. Buy when the forces are about to go in your favour, and you win, buy when the forces align against you, and you lose. Win or lose money in this case, or borrowed money, or mortgaged time, all items and constructs of considerable value. WIth all this at stake, getting the best answer to this question is a matter of vital importance.
In the property game, real estate agents or brokers, are the king-makers in a land of pauper princes and princesses. They advise sellers on prices and they advise buyers on prices. They sit in the middle of these delicate negotiations with one clear objective in mind, facilitate a transaction which results in a commission percentage. Ask them when is the right time to buy and the answer might be right “about now, maybe tomorrow at 9am, here’s my card”. In this scenario, the diagnosis is “currently priced at 350K before it goes up to 400k in one year”, with a companion prognosis “30 year variable rate mortgage”. A second opinion might yield “nothing worth buying now, wait one year until priced at 325k, prognosis 27 year mortgage”. Two very similar modes of action defined within a very narrow scope with deep long-lasting impacts.
Where does the qualified alternative second opinion come from here? What’s the alternative diagnosis to this question of time in a game all about timing. The competing qualified opinions of realtors which are driving the consensus that infinite appreciation is possible in the property market must surely be deemed to be the same sides of an argument which is creating a bubble but denying its existence. Can these opinions really be deemed viable secondary sources of valid information?
Stock brokers and rule breakers
A similar dynamic is at play when discussing financial markets and the forces which push and pull on FOREX, stock market and interest rates. Recent revelations regarding insider collusion among banks in setting interest rates to exploit their customers, shows that we must be more critical in our assessment of what are considered acceptable measures of oversight in an industry whose effects are far reaching, and whose rewards are disproportionately weighted to towards certain behaviours i.e. maximising profits.
The basic, “Are you sure? Have you double-checked?” investigation method might fall short in this circles. In the case of the LiBoR revelations, the banks involved had responsibility to double-checked their calculations and ensure everything was correct. They were the primary and secondary sources of informed opinion for the market. It’s just that due to their own short-term personal interests, they were able to misrepresented the truth because their word was deemed the beginning and end in all discussions involving their business practices.
The revelations proved there was a conspiracy to manipulate data and calculations, so that even a qualified second opinion in the field would have deemed it sound. That an long-established, highly-rewarded and “respected” industry thought it acceptable to treat its customers this way, one might ask if other industries are similarly guilty of such manipulations? The incentives are there, the potential is there, are we to be as innocent to think that other corporations aren’t actively conspiring in the same way the banks were?
The very nature of having control of a decision, small or large, puts you in the position where someone may be affected by the result of your decision. In the case of a material acquisition, the person selling the item to you stands to benefit, the person missing out on the sale, stands to miss out. The value of consumer spending in the western world makes it such that one of the biggest spending industries is advertising. It is worth billions of dollars to influence where billions more are spent. So it is worthwhile for someone with something to sell, to ensure that their interests are best presented to potential buyers.
We can see a similar influence at play when decisions of a political nature are made, which affect the lives and bank balances of people. We hear of decisions being made in the economic interests of the nation. But what exactly are those economic interests being referenced? Does an increase in a state’s GDP or the profits for a selected group of businesses, reflect the economic interests of the population at large? There should be more to political decision making, than short-sighted decisions which use GDP and profit as the best measuring sticks of the quality of a decision.
Yet inside political influencing circles, the ones most likely to be seated in positions of influence tend to come from a very narrow segment of our society. It is well documented the extent to which business interests yield an inordinate amount of influence on decision making in the political establishment. When the spectrum of debate and variance of opinions on a topic are derived from such a select segment of the populace, the standard to which original opinions can be tested will inevitably be lowered.
There are a multitude of ideological areas where there are concerted efforts by players in that area to keep the frame of all discussions inside their realm of control. If you can control the debate, you can control the outcome of the debate. Anarchist protest groups are marginalised as much as possible by governments and business, not just because their ideas are not aligned with business and political interests, but that consideration of their ideology calls into question the entire basis of our understanding of democratic and capitalist societies. But when considering societal policy, we match up competing policy A against policy B in a ring where the rules of engagement have been defined by a narrow spectrum of starting assumptions, and the judgements passed by those purporting the particulars of the policies. Should we not be holding up our ideas against their extreme counterpoints to determine their suitability for our purposes?
Actually challenging your base assumptions vs. reconfirming your existing assumptions
A lesson to extrapolate from all of this could be summarised as when engaging a second opinion, one should rebuild the entire case from the bottom up, redefining all base assumptions if required, as opposed to conducting a top-down justification of the initial opinion, with the depth of the inquiry only going as far the level required to satisfy the most basic criteria of conceptual soundness. Rather than engage a realtor to challenge the assumptions of another realtor, engage the services of an investment analyst who believes that the property market is in the midst of a bubble. The opposing base assumptions (if sound), will build an alternative view of the situation and perhaps provide a different insight with another series of options available to the person in search of advice. Best case scenario, one ends up with a variety of opinions aligned on a definite course of action. Worst case scenario, one ends up with more opposing information than they can reasonably fit into a proposed model of their situation. Especially when addressing issues which can impact a person’s lifestyle for the next 25 years, no decision (a null decision) based on good information is better than a bad decision based on no information.
Are you open to the idea that you may be completely wrong in your way of thinking?
The inherent dangers in employing the services of a contrarian’s professional opinion are that it may require a complete overhaul of one’s base assumptions, should the contrarian prove their case in an appropriate manner. To question a person’s methods of reasoning by providing an alternative method for consideration is one thing, but to challenge a person’s base assumptions, upon which they have selected all of their methods for navigation through the minefield, can be met with more strenuous resistance. But isn’t this where we should be focusing the intention of our questioning, at the very roots of the arguments? To attempt to address arguments by working on the surface and to a certain depth, is to neglect the fact that we are always running the risk of being wrong by the basis of the fact that our original assumptions are wrong. The construct of an argument is only as sound as the assumptions which form its basis.
Considering the range of opinions on offer as we navigate the world, the question arises for us to contemplate: Are my secondary opinion sources really secondary or are they just confirming my primary judgement? If you align with left-wing political ideologies, do you consult right wing sources for balancing your judgement, or do you seek other left leaning opinions to further validate your position?
What constitutes an informed opinion? Is it one which has gathered all the data and opinions which support its hypothesis or does it seek and integrate the arguments which try to completely undermine the basis of its existence? An informed opinion should not fear the stress testing of a different angle or way of thinking. Rather it should welcome it, as the nature of it’s being “informed” is dependent on its exposure to information.
A true champion idea will stand up to all aspiring opposition and not just limit itself to challenges from a friendly stable of sparring partners. Get in the ring!