Opinions and beliefs are not facts

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

The emptiness of an elevator pitch.

Many years ago, I met with a high-powered head hunter at an airport lounge about a job I applied for. I told him I had some ideas about it, and he told me he is in a hurry and to give it to him in an elevator pitch. If the idea couldn’t be explained before the doors opened, it had no value. I look at our world as complex, and complex ideas don’t fit in elevators, which makes them unpopular and of lesser value.

Every newspaper, magazine, or online medium I open today is filled with beliefs and opinions about health care and other big problems, with snappy solutions for how it can be fixed. I distinguish between opinions and beliefs on the one hand, and facts on the other. If you claim your belief or opinion is based on fact, I want an opportunity to verify the fact, otherwise it is just your opinion. I’m astonished not only about how few beliefs and opinions are based in fact, but more so how flimsy facts supporting the beliefs and opinions are in general. Most of what I read are just beliefs and opinions, which we take on because they are presented by the right or most vocal opinion leaders. That is a major problem.

Which bleeds into a second and even bigger problem; the attached notion that the health care conundrum and other big problems are simple to fix, as these people suggest. Let’s assume for one moment the problem is complex, which is exactly what it is, and that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. That means every opinionated believer can only see a small sliver of the bigger problem, and there is no way of telling whether it is the right one. It means no-one is an expert about complex problems and it’s not pitches not fitting in elevators that’s the problem, but those who claim they can do so.

Here in North America, we are in Marlboro Man territory, which means square jawed tough men and woman grabbing problems by the scruff of the neck and fixing them by zipping up and down with elevator solutions. To high-powered head hunters and opinion leaders you don’t even have to be in the right elevator to do so, you just need to believe and have an opinion you can articulate in a few sentences.

But complexity changes everything. It is impossible for one or even a small group of people to know how to solve complex problems by themselves, because all they have is a small peephole look, cutting off most of the bigger picture. You need to bring together and share many different perspectives to be able to build a more accurate picture of the problem and represent the complexity of the issue better. It never fits on a 2×2 or 4×4 grid. All it took was a few weeks and a 32-page report by three people to totally upend the health care system of one of the Canadian provinces with their opinions and beliefs.

The structured approaches to problem solving and decision making we are taught academically generate sets of solutions to choose from, but complex problems are difficult to describe hence have no clear solutions; you make progress by learning your way forward. The former ends when the problem is solved, there is no end to the latter, just progress, hopefully towards improvement. Because complex problems are interrelated and your actions and efforts to bring about change have unpredictable consequences, you are obliged and must be prepared to respond to it. It turns out solutions simple enough for an elevator pitch I read about are more likely to make things worse than better, given the complexity of the problems.

In science, you pick a method and then use that to solve problems. For complex problems you must engage with the problem to find out which method is most likely to be helpful. Scientific method is a template used for finding “facts”, the methods you use for complex problems depends on the context and are used to learn more about the problem and what may make it better. In other words, commitment to a “scientific” approach or method up front doesn’t work for complex problems, because every problem is unique.

Some believe science generates facts that are necessarily true, although they only remain so until proven wrong. We don’t all agree what facts are concerning complex phenomena, but we can agree what facts are useful for making progress with the problem, and facts about complexity are not of the true or false kind, they are about what makes a situation better or worse. The way you use this information to describe the problem determines what you get to know about it, and how you are likely to go about solving it.

We must face the reality that the days of elevator pitches and experts are done; we are in for the long haul with the problems we face, expertise to solve them must come from many sources, and key is bringing these experts and resources together to talk to each other. But conversation and dialogue in general tend to go around in circles unless we can agree on what to talk about and have a moderator keeping it on track, something like Strümpfer’s designed conversation for example.

The debate and communication we are currently locked in creates winners and losers; those who shout loudest or outlasts everyone else wins and get to pilot the boat. The point of conversation and dialogue on the other hand is exploring beliefs and opinions, and fact checking to build a bigger and more comprehensive picture of reality, and a consensus everyone believes can work and is prepared to work towards. Which is the opposite of the expert all-knowing advisor with a predetermined plan, and a simple one at that which everyone must just follow.

Solutions so simple you can explain them during an elevator trip cannot conceivably work for complex problems, although I’ve come across many whose opinion and belief it is. The problem is, there are no consequences and accountability if they are wrong; if there were, perhaps they would be less certain and fact check to see if their opinions and beliefs are correct. It’s all good and well that anyone with an electronic device and online account can shout from the rooftops, it’s quite another when they are put in charge after a successful elevator pitch and start poking the hornet’s nest of complexity. That’s why we are in trouble to begin with.

The expert planners, leaders, consultants, academics, journalists, politicians, and others who believe they know the answers to complex problems such as health care are drowning out calls for a different approach, more aligned with the reality we live in. The forums and media they use encourage believers and the opinionated to step forward at the expense of reasoned dialogue and respect for different perspectives. What we need is not more debate about whose opinions and beliefs are right, but more conversation and dialogue to build a better understanding of what we are dealing with.