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Are “Strong Opinions” Really “Weakly Held”?

Strong opinion, weakly held.

It’s become the go-to description for explaining the legitimacy of a decidedly non-apologetic, domineering personality or position. The idea is that it may be okay to have an aggressive stance, as long as it doesn’t devolve into pure stubbornness, and that the mechanism to change that opinion lies in counteracting evidence. That is, this philosophy lets its followers buy into their beliefs without reservation as long as they keep an open mind.

Is that actually true?

After a little research, it seems like the original intent of the term was to highlight a technique whereby someone is able to make a strong commitment to one side an issue, with imperfect information, and in building that strength of argument work through the details themselves. The “weakly held” part is meant to be a check against unconscious biases by actively seeking one or more contradictory viewpoints, and be willing to change if new evidence presents itself. Presented in this context, it sounds like a perfectly reasonable framework.

I feel like that benign and self-checking definition, however, has been co-opted by those who use it as a bludgeon to justify their own stubborn positions, doing exactly the opposite of the original intent1. Instead of proactively seeking out the contrarian viewpoint, proponents project that responsibility onto others, and it’s never clear just how much evidence is sufficient to sway them to expand beyond their original opinion. That is, merely claiming that a opinion is weakly held provides moral justification for expressing a strong and sometimes unsupported2 position.

And in fact, because the counterfactual is more theoretical than actual, the most vocal champions invite controversy. The top Google search result for this term turns out to be a blog post by Jeff Atwood—a well-known programmer who has plenty of strong opinions—justifying his writing style. As you can guess, the following commentary is polarizing; both the supporters and detractors vent their own opinions and there’s little actual reconciliation between the sides. If there is supposed to be a “weakly held” caveat, it was noticeably missing in application.

All of this is to say that I’ve become completely skeptical of the term and those who adopt the philosophy.

  1. Funnily enough, if you compare the original manifesto for Agile development versus the entire cottage industry that has latched onto the proper noun, the same criticism applies.

  2. In this case, it’s unsupported in part because the position hasn’t been fully vetted against its strongest counterarguments.

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