Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What is an Opinion Worth?

What someone thinks it is. You can no more decree the 'value' of an opinion than you can decree the value of a sack of potatoes. It's worth whatever value someone is prepared to give it.

We assume that the wisdom of crowds will ensure that a fair impression is given overall – that the uncensored self-expression of hundreds of millions will tend towards the truth. Half the time it just regresses to the mean.

I wonder if he understands any of the ideas he has introduced there. I suspect not. In any case we assume no such thing. Under certain conditions to have greater confidence in the pooled thought of a group than in any one individual from that group, but most of the time all you get is a collection of opinions.

The article is about how important he is and how much more seriously he should be taken than people who just write anonymous comments. He says an internet troll’s opinion should carry no more weight than graffiti. That ‘should’ is a bit of a giveaway. He doesn’t like being criticised and is flailing around for a way to stop it happening that doesn’t sound excessively totalitarian. Inevitably there are calls, above and below the line, for some kind of control on what people can say without providing a name. Prohibition is some people’s answer to everything, sadly.

Although he writes under the name David Mitchell, I have no idea who he is, or whether that is his real name. To me he is anonymous as I am to him. I have no idea whether his opinion is based on any kind of expert knowledge that might give it a little weight. Internal evidence in the text suggests not. He just objects to people saying bad things about him.

So do we all, but the answer, I’m afraid, is not to set yourself up as an opinion-former in a major national newspaper. Anyone who has any kind of public profile, from this little blog to the comment pages of the Guardian, from Westminster to Old Trafford, passing through Hollywood on route to Hello magazine, is open to personal criticism. Communication works both ways. You tell me what you think, and I’ll tell you if I think you’re wrong. Some people will get nasty. Not everyone is nice. Not everyone cares who you think you are. Some will snipe quietly without leaving a trace. If they aren’t doing it on line they’ll be doing it in the pub, or just to themselves. The only difference is that you don’t get to find out. You delete them. You live with it, if you want people to hear your ideas.

The alternative is to shut people up by force, and that is not a good idea. In any case, you can’t stop people disagreeing with you, or thinking bad things about you. Not everyone likes you, and not everyone thinks you’re wonderful. You can’t change that, however Draconian the laws you pass.

An opinion is worth the value we attribute to it. No more, no less. I attribute little or no value to the opinion of David Mitchell because it’s clear he’s writing from a personal perspective, motivated by the chip on his shoulder. He knows little of his subject and is not interested in informing or promoting the interests of the reader. A journalist’s worthless opinion is obviously worth nothing. A priori, any journalist’s opinion is worth nothing. As a graffiti artist or a troll’s opinion is worth nothing unless it creates value for itself.

The whole article, and many of the comments, and the assumption behind it- that many people will agree with him- is no more than a self-conscious plea to be taken as seriously as he takes himself. Not an attractive posture.

In part two, I shall rant about groups who think they are special and try to protect their imagined status by making rules to exclude those who are ‘not like them.’


Vincent said...

If I wanted to spend my time getting wound up and ranting, I would read The Guardian. But there are other things to do.

I only have to read one sentence from your quote to satisfy myself that nothing worthy can result from such sloppy writing.

"Half the time it just regresses to the mean."

Is that supposed to be a piece of statistical wisdom? How do you calculate a mean from the "uncensored self-expression of hundreds of millions"?

Is he arguing against uncensored self-expression? I suppose he is censored in a way. Even The Guardian won't let him say just what he likes on their paper or website.

And who does "assume that the wisdom of crowds will ensure that a fair impression is given overall"? Who is this "we", apart from lazy journalists unable to think or write coherently?

Uncensored self-expression just is what it is. It has worth to the one who writes it and the one who reads it. Like a blog. And that is enough.

The ones to be condemned are not those who take the trouble (to read or write) for the worth they find in the activity. The journalists paid to write something, whether they have anything to say or not, they are the ones to be condemned. For they issue half-arsed garbage.

Polly Toynbee springs to mind.

CIngram said...

I really must stop reading the Guardian. Looking back at the post I haven't really said anything that anyone else would want to hear, but the ignorant and self-serving nature of the article wound me up until I imagined that my annoyance could be best expressed as a blog post.

I quoted the bit about the wisdom of crowds and regressing to the mean because it seemed to sum up his article. He tried to find a clever way of saying that people who disagree with him are stupid, and ended up showing his own stupidity.

I shall try to break the habit of reading the popular press as anything but a satire on itself.