Understand First, Then Form Your Opinion


Lots of people are willing to tell you what your opinion should be. Far fewer give you the information needed to form your own opinion. Fortunately, in the age in which we live, the information you need is readily available. Here is some practical advice on how to gather enough information to get a basic understanding of an issue.

Take a deep breath, you are smart enough to use an internet search engine:

Step one. Search for the information. Search not only for the first word or phrase that pops into your head but also for related or similar words or phrases.

Do not read any opinion articles about your topic of interest. You are looking for evidence from which you will draw your own opinions. Conclusions others have drawn will bias your learning.

Step two. Read a little bit from a couple of different articles. Get a general idea about the topic. Get used to the jargon, get a feel for how the topic is talked about.

For example, in researching for this post I did some research about knowledge, education, learning and experience. Here are the snippets I got from Wikipedia:

  • Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.
  • Education is the process of facilitating learning, or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits.
  • Learning is the process of acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values or preferences.
  • Experience is the knowledge or mastery of an event or subject gained through involvement in or exposure to it.

Step three. Read one of the articles from your search. Pick one. Read it. Was the article actually on the topic? Lots of titles and opening paragraphs can be deceptive. Whether or not it turned out to be exactly what you needed, you learned something.

When you read a word or phrase or concept you do not understand, use the search engine to look it up. Read a bit to get the definition or general idea about that which you did not understand. Dig deeper if warranted.

Step four. Now that you know a little more about the topic, refine your search and repeat.

Here is an example. Rather than accept a brag about the massive number of twitter followers someone has, let us seek to understand more about the topic.

First step, gather some basic information.

How many people are there in the area of interest?  This sets the base line.

  • World population = 7.6 billion
  • US population = 326 million

How many twitter followers are there?

By doing a little math ((326-69)/326) 79 percent of Americans do not have a Twitter account. Ninety-six percent of the world does not have a Twitter account. Even if everyone with a twitter account followed a single person, the tweets from that person would only reach about a quarter of the people. Now let us dig a little deeper.

The ten most followed twitter accounts include

  • @katyperry (105 million)
  • @justinbieber (103.12 million)
  • @barackobama (96.93 million)
  • @talorswift13 (85.3 million)
  • @rihanna (81.4 million)
  • @TheEllenShow (74.92 million)

The person with the most followers is followed by less than a third of the people with accounts on Twitter. So unless a person is in about the top 10, the percent of the population, actually following them is markedly lower.

I have a couple of Twitter followers. They were all in the room when my daughter helped set up my Twitter account.

New knowledge is gained by building a foundation of basic information. We gather additional information by experience, education, reading, etc. Finally, we put all of the information in perspective relative to other information. From that, we form an opinion.

Sometimes after looking deep into a topic, I have not found what I learned all that useful. Other times I am shocked how wrong my previous opinion was. No matter what your reaction is to what you learned, remember, you learned more than you knew before. That is a good thing.

As a child, the librarian who lived next door told me this. If you read one source on a topic, you have one view of the topic. If you read three sources on a topic, you have enough views to start having some perspective on the topic. When you read 5 or more sources on a topic, you will have enough different perspectives on the topic to maybe have a worthwhile opinion.

Lots of people are willing to tell you what your opinion should be. Ignore them, you have the ability and means to gather the basic information to form our own opinion. It is not that hard. Gathering information and forming an opinion is very rewarding. You will feel good about yourself.

One caution: Keep in mind, nobody is any one thing. Liars do not always lie. Mean people are not always mean. No group ever shares all of the same characteristics. Geniuses do not know everything. People with very low IQs often do and say very smart things. When you read that “they” all have some characteristic or another, it is suspect. Do further reading on the topic.

Nobody is perfect, including you. Smart people, like you, see the facts and sometimes come to a wrong conclusion.  However, most of the time they come to an informed opinion.

Paul Leegard is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Leah Anderson

Thanks for posting this, Paul. Not only is this a very timely reminder to take the time to stay informed, but I also appreciate you outlining how to do it! It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of content/news out there, so it’s helpful to hear tips on how exactly to get informed and think about the sources we’re reading and then construct an argument.

Marçal Prats

What a great truth it is to postpone one’s own opinions until a first stage of research has been completed! I implement this structure in my work systematically to improve the results.