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The Opinionization Quadrant

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The problem with quadrant charts isn’t that they have two axes and four boxes. It’s the magic part — why their contents are what they are.

Well, okay, that’s one of the problems. Another is that once you (you being me, that is) get in the quadrant habit, new ones pop into your head all the time.

Like, for example, this little puppy that came to me while I was watching Kong: Skull Island as my Gogo inflight movie.

It’s a new, Gartnerized test of actorhood. Preposterousness is the vertical axis. Convincing portrayal of a character is the horizontal. In Kong, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, and John C. Reilly made the upper right. I leave it to KJR’s readers to label the quadrants.

While this might not be the best example, quadrant charts can be useful for visualizing how a bunch of stuff compares. Take, for example, my new Opinionization Quadrant. It visualizes the different types of thinking you and I run across all the time … and, if we’re honest with each other, the ones we ourselves engage in as well.

It’s all about evidence and certainty. No matter the subject, more and better evidence is what defines expertise and should be the source of confident opinion.

Less and worse evidence should lead to skepticism, along with a desire to obtain more and better evidence unless apathy prevails.

When more and better evidence doesn’t overcome skepticism, that’s just as bad as prejudice and as unfounded as belief. It’s where denial happens — in the face of overwhelming evidence someone is unwilling to change their position on a subject.

Rationality happens when knowledge and certainty positively correlate. Except there’s so much known about so many subjects that, with the possible exception of Professor Irwin Corey (the world’s foremost authority), we should all be completely skeptical about just about everything.

So we need to allow for once-removed evidence — reporting about those subjects we lack the time or, in some cases genius to become experts in ourselves.

No question, once-removed evidence — journalism, to give it a name — does have a few pitfalls.

The first happens when we … okay, I start my quest for an opinion in the Belief/Prejudice quadrant. My self-knowledge extends to knowing I’m too ignorant about the subject to have a strongly held opinion, but not to acknowledging to myself that my strongly held opinion might be wrong.

And so off I go, energetically Googling for ammunition rather than illumination. This being the age of the Internet and all, someone will have written exactly what I want to read, convincingly enough to stay within the boundaries set by my confirmation bias.

This isn’t, of course, actual journalism but it can look a lot like it to the unwary.

The second need for care is understanding the nature and limits of reportage.

Start here: Journalism is a profession. Journalists have to learn their trade. And like most professions it’s an affinity group. Members in good standing care about the respect and approval of other members in good standing.

So when it comes to reporting on, say, social or political matters, a professional reporter might have liberal or conservative inclinations, but are less likely to root their reporting in their political affinity than you or I would be.

Their affinity, when reporting, is to their profession, not to where they sit on the political spectrum. Given a choice between supporting politicians they agree with and publishing an exclusive story damaging to those same politicians, they’ll go with the scoop every time.

IT journalism isn’t all that different, except that instead of being accused of liberal or conservative bias, IT writers are accused of being Apple, or Microsoft, (or Oracle, or open source) fanbodies.

Also: As with political writing, there’s a difference between professional reporters and opinionators. In both politics and tech, opinionators are much more likely to be aligned to one camp or another than reporters. Me too, although I try to keep a grip on it.

And in tech publishing the line separating reporting and opinion isn’t as bright and clear as with political reporting. It can’t be. With tech, true expertise often requires deep knowledge of a specific product line, so affinity bias is hard to avoid. Also, many of us who write in the tech field aren’t degreed journalists. We’re pretty good writers who know the territory, so our journalistic affinity is more limited.

There’s also tech pseudojournalism, where those who are reporting and opinionating (and, for that matter, quadrant-izing) work for firms that receive significant sums from those being reported on.

As Groucho said so long ago, “Love goes out the door when money comes innuendo.”

Comments (11)

  • One of my favorite (not tech) writers often says, “I’m wrong 50% of the time. That isn’t so bad, but what bothers me is that i don’t know which 50%.” No, that’s not humor lack of strongly held beliefs, but a willingness to recognize he’s still learning and growing and willing to listen to other points of view.

  • One of my favorite (not tech) writers often says, “I’m wrong 50% of the time. That isn’t so bad, but what bothers me is that i don’t know which 50%.” No, that’s not pure humor or lack of strongly held beliefs, but a willingness to recognize he’s still learning and growing and willing to listen to other points of view.

  • You give journalists too much credit for simply amassing skills as journalists.

    I think we’d all be better off if journalists were skilled in some other area and then learned to write and report things. Journalist as explained by your article are hugely susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect of thinking themselves experts on all topics when they are only experts on reporting.

    I think that in general IT Journalism is way better than political journalism because most IT journalists develop the IT skills first, then learn to write about it. So many journalists nowadays, just learn to write and then spew know-nothing crap.

    Michael Crichton (also someone trained in one highly technical field who then learned to write) postulated the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect to point out just how bad journalism (for journalism’s sake) is. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/65213-briefly-stated-the-gell-mann-amnesia-effect-is-as-follows-you

    Shorter comment. You’re being waaaaay to kind to political journalism, and way to harsh on tech. journalism.

    • Maybe, but on the other hand I’ve actually been friends with journalists in both camps. I recall a business pages reporter who was moved from the airlines beat to the telecom beat. I managed telecom at the time; he spent hours with me learning about the field. A key skill good reporters learn is how to master a subject quickly.

      When I worked for a newspaper (business side, not newsroom) what struck me the most about the reporters was how little they cared about which political side they were reporting on. Political reporting, especially broadcast, certainly has its flaws. Many are budget-driven … one or two shouting heads cost a lot less than on-location reporting; also, there are 24 hours to fill, minus commercials, whether or not there’s any new content to fill them with.

      It appears you’re rejecting my contention that journalism is a profession in its own right, with a set of skills that are valuable independent of both domain knowledge and writing skill. So here’s a suggestion: Choose a field you know something about. Track down a blogger or three who write about it. Compare their content to stories about the same subject in the mainstream, non-tabloid print media … the New York Times, Washington Post, and your local paper. Look in particular for the role facts and direct quotes play in the writing.

      Bad reporters are like bad anything. They exist, but don’t exemplify.

      • “I’ve actually been friends with journalists in both camps.”

        I was going to bring this up as part of why we’re not all the green arrows in your chart – anecdotal data that someone experiences personally will always weigh as the highest quality data in the “evidence” direction.

        This is not to say that I disagree with your point about journalists in general.

        I think the major difference between political journalists and tech journalists is funding sources. Tech journals make their money from tech advertising. People love to talk about the “wall” between editorial content and finances, but that wall is just as solid as the human beings it consists of – which is to say, not very.

        In fact political journalists working for companies with a strong bias towards one side or the other are much less reliable than those publishers who can somehow maintain a neutral position themselves – or are aware enough of their bias to present opposing viewpoints. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News are very biased. The Washington Post often presents opposing viewpoints.

        Reading tech journalists writing for mainstream news, as opposed to those in tech journals themselves, might provide a less-influenced and more neutral viewpoint on technology.

      • You’re right that my knowledge of journalists isn’t based on a random sample. I’ve found, though, that most of the people I’ve talked to on this subject form their opinions based on a combination of victimhood-based griping, simple name-calling, and Hollywood stereotypes.

        Then there’s the interesting case of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who reported the facts about the supposed Clintonian uranium deal with Russia, completely debunking the supposed conspiracy (http://money.cnn.com/2017/11/15/media/shepard-smith-fox-news-hillary-clinton-uranium-one/index.html). Fox viewers demanded he be fired for not telling them what they wanted to hear.

        It appears Mr. Smith feels a greater sense of affinity with the Journalists tribe than with the Conservatives tribe.

  • Ego is the problem. Thinking you’re right the first time you spew some nonsense is just an error. But once you start doubling down in the face of evidence, then you’re fighting the other people, not exploring the idea itself.

    I was wondering about that with addiction. How much of it is physical and how much mental, kiss my posterior kind of attitude to all the straight arrows? Doctors show pictures of lung cancer victims with their esophagus removed smoking thru a plastic breathing tube.

    The docs say it’s because of nicotine addiction. Perhaps. I don’t think anyone’s truly explored the power of ego to deny reality.

    If the placebo and nocebo effects are real, what are the real affects of an ego to deny reality?

  • Your post fit right in with my other readings today! First came a story about the flat earth convention, and how the believers know they are right based on ‘gut feeling, common sense, and evidence’. Then an article about how some people in Alabama are now MORE supportive of Roy Moore given their distrust of WaPo journalists and their ilk, and their belief that the accusations are clearly a conspiracy. Resulting in a Vox reporter making the following observation: “Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above. It can only speak through human institutions and practices. There is no longer any settling such arguments. The only way to settle any argument is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy, and to place a measure of shared trust in institutions meant to vouchsafe evidence and accuracy. Without that basic agreement, without common arbiters, there can be no end to dispute.” David Roberts, Vox reporter 11/2017 https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/11/13/16642458/roy-moore-doug-jones-poll-alabama-senate
    [I tend to think that journalist do have a bias: for targets those where their ‘scoop’ is likely to create the most uproar; no fun reporting that the fiery male leader does the dishes and house-cleaning at home; Steve Jobs made for more interesting copy than Bill Gates.]

  • Assuming you are using the model,


    it seems to me that:
    1. The Y-2 and X-2 quadrants indicate dysfunctionality in an organization.
    2. That it is also important to somehow measure and display in bubbles the number of people holding assignable views in the organization (maybe both not easy and not avoidable).
    3. Unless proven otherwise, it would seem that “tech pseudojournalism”, mostly functions as the organizational version of fake news and fake news channels – all opinions with few or no facts to support those opinions. This could under some circumstances become an existential threat for the organization, even if there are innocent intentions.

    This was mostly new to me, so thanks for your article.

    • I wasn’t deliberately using the model you referenced. I’ve seen (and produced) enough quadrant charts that they’re almost second nature these days.

      I know it’s popular to code additional information in them – bubble size and color adding two additional dimensions of analysis and I’ve even seen bubble shape used as well.

      The positive in this is that it increases the information density. The negative is that it makes interpretation at a glance impossible.

      To your other point – I was presenting this more as a self-evaluation and recommendation for adjusting each of our opinion-formation trajectories than I was as a way to assess organizations. That is, if I’m currently prejudiced my first step shouldn’t be to gather information. It should be to become a skeptic. As a skeptic I’m more likely to gather information for objective analysis.

      Not that you couldn’t use this for a cultural assessment, too. I’m just not sure how you’d get a bead on the population being assessed.

      • Thanks for the clarification. It seems quite valuable to me. I think it works well when I know I’m biased, but can be trickier when I think I only may be biased.

        But, who do I trust when I am biased, but don’t know it or believe it? Who in my life do I know, that is different enough from me that they could see that bias and whom I trust enough to move to become the skeptic you advocate being?

        And, if there aren’t any people that fit that category, how do I find them (or let them find me) and get them into my life?

        I guess human life was not invented to be simple or easy. But it can be fun. Thanks for your response.

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