Emotions in fancy dress

Fancy dressI published a post last week for the first time in ages.  In so doing, I stumbled across a graveyard of half-written posts (the kernel of an idea comes easily to me, making this relevant and coherent does not). I’ll see if I can finish a few more posts – here’s another. It starts with a quote:

“…opinions are bad things.

By opinions I do not mean ideas, and I do not mean thought. An opinion is rarely born of thought. Instead it arrives fully formed in a head. Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress. They can be inherited, or they can spring from fears or desires, but they are never right.

Yet look how ferociously, how indefatigably, people cling to their opinions in the face of a flood of evidence that those opinions are at best questionable, and more likely mere dump fodder.

Look at the intransigent folly of so much politics. Look at the nonsense that passes for political debate….if you want to take part in this contest you are required to join a team and in order to join a team you have to have a packaged set of opinions.

Where do these opinions come from? Are they arrived at by rational analysis? If so, and if reason is reason, how come they differ? But opinions are not reasonable.

We are emotional creatures in an irrational world. Anyone who holds opinions is wrong and dangerous…The only comfortable seat for a thinking human being is a fence.

…and that’s my opinion.” (Joe Bennett1)

Joe’s article (from which the quote is pulled) brings a broad smile to my face. I absolutely love the penultimate line. In the societies that I have known (the UK, and to a lesser extent NZ) the phrase ‘sitting on the fence’ is often (i.e. normally) used as an insult – and yet this has always irritated me. I often find myself sitting on the proverbial fence…because I feel that I don’t know enough to pass judgement.

I don’t see this as a bad thing.  Whenever I find myself in a ‘fencing-sitting’ scenario, it suggests that:

  1. I shouldn’t be giving an opinion (no matter how hard I am pushed to do so)….since I clearly feel that I don’t know enough; and
  2. I could do with learning some more.

I see the ‘I’m fence-sitting’ circumstance as a useful realisation because, if I care about the issue in focus, then it should trigger me into putting some effort into ‘digging in’, to uncover facts, to appreciate perspectives, to see the bigger picture. In so doing, I am highly likely to move to a new (and more productive) place.

Merely having an opinion and sticking to it is likely to keep me anchored rigidly to the spot, as if stuck at the bottom of a deep lake in a pair of concrete boots.

A likely critique:

“But you’d never get anywhere Steve! You’d be forever stuck, like a broken record.”

I would suggest the opposite.

‘Not having opinions’ doesn’t have to mean staying meekly silent. Rather, it implies entering and sustaining an open-minded dialogue. This would require skillfully setting out:

  • what you think you know, and why;
  • what you are uncertain of, and why; and
  • what you understand as clear holes in your knowledge.

…and thus collaborating with others who can perhaps expand the group’s (never to be complete) jigsaw of knowledge.

Further, ‘not having opinions’ does not mean ‘not making decisions’. Rather, it means using facts to make decisions, and investing in the (hugely rewarding) effort of collecting facts before doing so.

If you feel that you don’t know, well go and find out some more!

We’d probably move away from ‘implementing ideologies’ (going fast to go slow) to ‘experimenting with hypotheses’ and making adjustments as we learn (going slow to go fast).

…but that’s just my opinion 😊.

On ‘going and find out more’

‘Finding out more’ doesn’t mean canvasing other people’s opinions or biasing your search for ‘evidence’ to that which supports your opinion. It means going to the ‘coal face’, observing reality (and the variation within), collecting the evidence for yourself and reflecting on what it is telling you.

A nice quote I heard the other day from a colleague:

“If you haven’t observed, you can’t talk”.

Now, that’s quite a bold and (perhaps blanket) statement, but there’s a rather important point within.

If we are not (yet) in a position to be able to observe (i.e. gain primary evidence) then I’d suggest that we should listen very carefully to those that have.


I recognise that this short post may be questioned by many, since opinions are (rightly or wrongly) a huge part of life.

I’ve written a number of earlier posts in this space and if you’d like to play with the idea further, here are a few to look at:


Take ‘Brexit’ as an example (the idea of Britain leaving the European Union).

Who’s got a strongly held opinion regarding Brexit? I’d suggest millions of people.

Who can (really) say that they fully understand what is being proposed and what will transpire? I’d suggest maybe a handful of ‘experts’…and even these will likely be wide of the mark.

…and with that thought, who will move onto the fence, to stop pushing their opinion and, instead, spend some real effort to further try to understand? Perhaps not so many.

‘Fence sitting’, at least while you are (meaningfully) learning, is a most excellent place to be.

Conversely, who’s dug into themselves, to think about the emotions that are answerable for driving their opinions? (Inherited from their parents? Created by their fears? Constructed from their cravings?…)

A reminder that Joe wrote that Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress”.

What costume(s) are you (and I) wearing? Why?


1. Joe Bennett is a most excellent writer of short, insightful, challenging (usually contrarian) articles that are published weekly in our local newspaper (‘The Press’) here in Christchurch New Zealand. https://www.joebennett.nz/

2 thoughts on “Emotions in fancy dress

  1. A lot to chew on here.

    Robbie Williams of the Incredible String Band sung “Opinions are my fingernails’.

    Sitting on the fence is like standing in the middle of the road, you get run over by cars from both sides!

    “Facts’ is a loaded term (yes I know it looks like I’m a Post Modernist which I’m not) As regards “facts” if science can’t get its act together what hope is there for us? Just look at the mess theoretical physicists are in (see Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Maths) Just do some study on how Statistics is misuse especially when it comes to p values and then you’ll understand that “facts” are mostly pretty nebulous things.


    It’s impossible to impartially observe “reality”.

    Think about the concept of the “organising idea”. (This is an oversimplification of something Goethe’s wrote about).

    Think of data as an amorphous soup. The organising idea is what we want to prove or disprove and it pulls out of the amorphous soup the data to either support or reject our theory etc.

    I applied Systems Thinking at work and as someone who both worked on the coal face and read about ST I had a grandstand seat as to what goes on when Complexity blows up in our face.

    But one person’s observations is not enough. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety says that in order to manage a complex system your sensors have to be as complex as the system itself. (I’ve used the “manage” not “control”because in reality it’s virtually impossible to control complex systems because of that definition)

    Having adequate sensors is also not enough, then you have to interpret the data correctly and there is a huge amount of studies done where not understanding the feedback has ended in disaster. Eg Three Mile Island, Deepwater Horizon to name but two. A good book on complexity and disasters is Meltdown – Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It,

    So it could be argued that after the data has been collected and interpreted then an opinion/belief is formed on that interpretation and acted on.

    Designers have a term “design freeze” (I think D A Norman coined it) where designers have to stop looking at the options and get down to designing. They don’t permanently sit on the fence. The art is knowing when to stop researching, make a decision based on our chosen data and belief and act.

    As regards Brexit I’m happy with people’s positions either for or against as long as they’ve done their research and then gone with what they feel is sensible for themselves,

    To repeat, we look at a topic from all sides and then *choose* what we believe and thus that means that’s what we have to believe and we thus act in accordance with that chosen belief. If something comes along for us to question that belief then we have to decide whether to repeat the process.

    This is often how classical science is done when it’s working properly. Unfortunately scientists and academics are no better than mere mortals – they often get blinded by emotion, organisational politics, alpha female and male power plays and so on.

    Sociotechnological issues is an area that needs more research as an understanding of those issues can help reduce their impact on how we form opinions and beliefs that are quite often based on our thought processes, emotions etc.

    To sum up: opinions are pervasive in all areas of society and the only thing we can do is be aware how we form our opinions and how can we arrive at a chosen belief that seems to work for us.


    • Thanks for your comment, and sorry for taking a while to respond. After reading and pondering, here’s some random thoughts that come to me:

      Yep, I’m very comfortable with the idea that ‘facts’ is a very slippery word. A lovely comment from Dr W. Edwards Deming on this is that “there are no facts except as man makes them”.

      There is, however, a monumental difference between people that are merely discussing opinions about something (knowing very little, if anything, about it) and people that have obtained knowledge from observing and collecting (a degree of) evidence.

      And, yes, I also see that even if many people do take the time and effort to gain knowledge, then each of them will observe things through their perspective (worldview) and hence may arrive at differing places. I’m minded of Peter Checkland’s life work regarding what he labelled as ‘soft systems’.

      Two thoughts on this: If we want to get as objective as is possible (and, given that this is likely a never-ending journey, continue to do so) then:

      1. We should care about how we go about observing and collecting evidence so as to reduce our likely biases; and
      2. We should be really really really interested when someone else, who also collected a degree of evidence, sees something differently to us.

      Such differences should prompt on-going dialogue and reflection rather than one-off debate and entrenchment.

      Hence my (current) point of view that we should be continually ‘on the fence’ without this causing paralysis of necessary action. Further, we all would do well to always keep open the possibility of reversing a course of action in so far as we can. I’m reminded of the quote “No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.”

      Conversely, just because I have an opinion, I don’t believe that it always follows that I should be taking action based upon it – the nature of how I arrived at my (current) opinion matters enormously. I can have an opinion on something and realise that I don’t really know what I’m talking about…and then have the humility (or is that good sense?) to withdraw myself from the ‘making decisions’ arena for the matter in question where I have the luxury of doing so.

      You wrote that “As regards Brexit I’m happy with people’s position either for or against as long as they’ve done their research and then gone with what they feel is sensible for themselves.”

      You went on to write that “we look at a topic from all sides and then *choose* what we believe…and thus act in accordance with [it]…If something comes along for us to question that belief then we have to decide whether to repeat the process.”

      There are two points of interest in this for me:
      1. What “…as long as they’ve done their research…” and “…we look at a topic from all sides…” actually means for that person; and
      2. Whether they are in a state of open-ness (aka suitably ‘on the fence’) to actually realise when “…something [else has] come along [that should give cause for them to] question that belief…”

      Note: I don’t intend any of the above as challenging your comment, just as further commentary. We may be in absolute agreement, albeit with different perspectives 🙂


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