On the value of dissenting opinions

Dissent is the native activity of the scientist, and it has got him into a good deal of trouble in the last years. But if that is cut off, what is left will not be a scientist. And I doubt whether it will be a man.
Jacob Bronowski

I was raised in a family headed by two lawyers. My parents, both educated in the legal world, taught us the value of dissenting opinions. Not the legal notion, per se (which has its own definition), but the idea that, maybe, someone else who had the opposite opinion to us, just maybe, that person’s opinion was actually right (or it had the possibility of being right)

photo credit: Francis Carnaúba

At the family dinner table, we would engage in profound discussions, which ranged from philosophy to science to politics, to our interpersonal relationships. We grew up immersed in a family culture that valued dissent. Nobody was *always* right, nobody was *always* wrong, but there was always room for a “middle-of-the-ground” approach. At the very least, we were able to express our contrary opinions. I would say something that one or more of my brothers might disagree with, and we *always* waited to hear the opposing view.

We waited to make our argument and try to win over (by convincing the person, not by beating it up) because we (my brothers and I) were raised seeing how arguments between lawyers were constructed: by presenting evidence and leaving it to judges to weigh on the evidence presented.

We (all my 4 brothers and I) went on to study various types of engineering and we adopted the scientific method as a rigorous template for our own work. Three of us went on to do PhDs, where the value of argumentation and presenting evidence in a rigorous manner is even more appreciated (as indicated in the quote with which I started my blog entry).

I value dissent, I really do. I appreciate my friends’ dissenting opinions and I appreciate the feedback when they think my view is not the right one. I disagree with people publicly when I don’t agree with them because I think it’s the right thing to do: to create a debate that allows us all to learn. I always offer my criticism in a respectful manner, though.

I worry, however, that social media is harming rather than enhancing our ability to dissent online for three reasons.

Unhappy marriage - Vision and scenes of Hell!
photo credit: antwerpenR

First, the online and public nature of dissenting opinions via online tools may lead to recipient(s) not reacting well to the feedback. I am pretty sure nobody likes to be called out publicly (particularly if they’re sensitive and the ‘calling out’ is worded in a negative way). As my parents said, you can get so much more by using honey rather than using vinegar.

Second, the quick, reflexive nature of 140-characters-long responses does not give the recipient enough time to process the message. We fire quick “FAIL” messages with the assumption that the recipient will understand what we mean by that. Which, most of the cases, is not true.

Third, the attention span of people immersed in social media has been greatly reduced, so people love to read quick, witty bits of 140 characters but nothing more. Long blog entries where an argument can be properly outlined and developed are eschewed in favor of long bursts of tweets.

This is something I’ve been reflecting on for a long, long time. As an academic, I’ve been trained to confront dissenting opinions and offer evidence to support my viewpoint. I *enjoy* it when people disagree with me (and of course, I love winning arguments). I worry, however, that the fast-paced, group-mob mentality will overtake our ability to present cogent and articulate arguments that might be dissenting with the majority’s view. And that *is* something to be worried about. Because a society can’t learn without dissent.

Will dissent be permitted? The answer to that question will determine whether the society is a free society or a fear society.
Natan Sharansky

Related posts:

  1. Blogging as writing on a sketchpad
  2. Opinions on wastewater treatment plant in Victoria
  3. “Because I said so”: Authoritative opinions in a world of authorities

Comments (8)

GlennMarch 16th, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I would add anonymity to the list of reasons. It’s so easy to argue with someone when hiding behind a fake name, and civil disagreements can quickly become heated flame wars when you don’t have to say who you really are.

GusFMarch 17th, 2010 at 8:58 am

As we discussed yesterday, I think that people are now afraid to be sued for any comments they might make, thus we are now careful what we say or state publically in the Social Media space. We might disagree with someone, but we now politely say so, but don’t necessarily offer commentry why we are disagreeing with you.

Social Media has open up the world to many who wish to broadcast, but I think now we reverting back to one on one conversations in the real world to truly state how we feel.

Ben ZieglerMarch 18th, 2010 at 6:55 am

Hi Raul, good post…
Dissent = diversity; which is good, and the way of all living systems. I think the social media of today is enabling dissent. Both collaboration and collective action are facilitated through today’s web tools. Even on the most divisive of topics (e.g., abortion, evolution…) you will find a Wikipedia entry, lovingly kept alive and evolving, by groups of people with strong opinions, no matter their stripe.

Todd SielingMarch 18th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I’m glad you posted this, Raul, as it’s truly one of the most important concerns around the rise of social networking technologies as a forum for public discussion.

There are definitely problems with some design decisions and assumptions in the software that make it harder to work through opinions that question or challenge, but I’m not sure it’s things like the 140-character format that are to blame.

I think a key issue of how social networks are affecting our ability to deal with dissent is that they facilitate opinion deepening instead of diversification. We often strive to make software deliver what we want and tune out what we don’t. That ability can turn social media networks, and other content channels like RSS feeds, into magic mirrors that pronounce each of us the smartest in the land every time we look into them, because we train them to show only what we agree with. It’s not a new phenomenon in mass media cultures, but it is a bad habit that is intensified by the tools when it’s not consciously countered.

We can think about it as the care and feeding of an open mind. If we only involve ourselves in places where we see what we like and hear opinions that reflect back and deepen what we already believe, then the ability to listen and think about what we don’t agree with right off the bat suffers, and I think this is where a lot of online discussion currently falters. If we can’t form those habits on our own, then the best software will need to salt our food for thought with dissent rather than constantly sweetening it.

hollywood-actingApril 10th, 2010 at 8:42 am

as a research scientist, i also value dissenting opinions. i never thought about it, but it does appear that social network sites do not cater to full expression (that, at least, will be read for more than the first few lines)….

Morten Rand-HendriksenApril 14th, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Man, compared to you I just come off as a guy throwing out crazy rants. Well written as always my friend. I’m linking my piece to yours now as further reading.

[...] For further reading on the topic of dissent and social media check out Raul Pacheco’s post on the same topic entitled On the value of dissenting opinions. [...]

HarrietMay 23rd, 2010 at 6:10 pm

You’re right; this is a good post. I tend to stay away from twitter arguments as it is the wrong venue for discussion (just way too short). Blog comments can be great if people are open and not didactic in their approaches. This is what makes social media great. I’ve written posts where the comments added more tot he dicussion that the post itself! Conversely, some commenters can be mean and there’s just no reason to be hurtful. So, while this is not the way the world works, I defend the right of people to leave reasonable comments but not to be nasty :)

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