Against Free Thinkers

Freethinker. One who has rejected authority and dogma, especially in his religious thinking, in favor of rational inquiry and speculation.  American Heritage Dictionary  

Individual whose opinions are formed on the basis of an understanding and rejection of tradition, authority or established belief.  Wikipedia

Many people see themselves as "free thinkers," with minds open to new ideas and perspectives.  They describe themselves positively as favoring rationality, but in practice their negative self-definition seems to have more force.  Even when they turn out to have been wrong, freethinkers are proud of having resisted social pressure toward conventional wisdom. 

Freethinkers see the deck stacked against new or contrary ideas, and see their own brave contrarian stance as a needed antidote to unreasonable conformity pressures.  On net, however, freethinkers deserve much of the blame for resistance to new ideas.  Bryan Caplan explains:

Suppose you’re interviewing a smart guy [for a job], without a college degree, and he offers you a money-back guarantee. You might think "What a great deal" and accept.  But then again, you might start thinking "What a weirdo. What’s wrong with him?"  And this, I propose, is the stumbling block to lots of worthwhile innovations. A person with an unconventional idea may have a point, but is also unlikely to be "normal." He may not fit it with other people. He may have problems with authority. He may be deviant in more ways than one! 

The problem is that on average people who support odd ideas are less desirable as associates, and less discriminating in which ideas they endorse.  If people only endorsed odd ideas when they had new information suggesting such ideas were promising, we should be eager to hear of such news, and eager to associate with such people.  But in fact the main task faced by those with good news on odd ideas is to distinguish themselves from freethinkers who just pretend to have such news.  Contrary to their self-image, undiscriminating freethinkers are our main obstacle to innovation. 

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  • Joseph Delaney

    “If people only endorsed odd ideas when they had new information suggesting such ideas were promising, we should be eager to hear of such news, and eager to associate with such people. But in fact the main task faced by those with good news on odd ideas is to distinguish themselves from freethinkers who just pretend to have such news. Contrary to their self-image, undiscriminating freethinkers are our main obstacle to innovation.”

    I would have thought that the major barrier to get ideas out and have them tested. The source of ideas might slow the adoption of these ideas but good ideas tend to prove themselves with time. I once saw this in corporate America — we had a guy who had a lot of good ideas but was roundly disliked by managers for being critical. But the ideas he proposed that were good tended to get adopted over time. It just took a second person to think about them and endorse them.

    I sometimes think that the skills to develop an idea are not the same as the skills to generate ideas; while they could occur in the same person I have seen much more evidence of the pairing of people in terms of successful innovation.

    I also think that the process of getting a good idea involves having many bad ideas. Smart people and careful evolution have shaped current practice and it isn’t easy to find ways to improve things. You have to try many different things before something finally works.

  • Robin Hanson

    Joseph, yes of course ideas must also be generated and developed. But between generation and development must come evaluation – choosing which generated ideas to develop. This is where I say freethinkers get in the way.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, I missed the evidence that shows that “undiscriminating freethinkers are our MAIN [emphasis added] obstacle to innovation”.

  • James D. Miller


    This post cuts against the argument you made in Choose: Credit or Influence. Recall that in that post you wrote that a way to get more influence was to let other people “steal” your good ideas. But if you get credit for past good ideas which people have come to accept then others are more likely to take your strange new ideas seriously.

    The Choose: Credit or influence post is here:

  • Anders Sandberg

    The personality variable ‘openness to experience’, which probably fit well with the label ‘freethinker’, also correlates with a stronger anchoring effect:
    The sensitivity to new information makes them sensitive to anchoring information. Maybe this makes them ideal for spreading the ideas of others.

  • Robin Hanson

    Hopefully, I offered no such evidence.

    James, another commenter made that point on that other post.

    Anders, interesting.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Usually, when someone wants you to think “outside the box”, they will, for your convenience, provide you with a particular set of ideas helpfully labeled “outside the box”. As an anonymous commenter put it, “Has any of the subversive literature you’ve read caused you to modify any of your political views?”

    An obstacle to individual freedom of thought is that people already have their “bold subversive revolutionary” slots filled in with standardized pap they got from their environments telling them what is “subversive”. Presenting an idea as “new and revolutionary” teaches the same habit of blind acceptance with a different excuse; it doesn’t teach people to question for themselves whether the New Idea is really subversive or not – let alone whether it’s actually new, or true.

    Neural nets are still being presented as the brilliant, subversive, Establishment-challenging, New Idea in AI. Thirty years later. It’s traditional, and where would we be without tradition? Whenever I try to talk about AI, someone immediately asks me whether I’m doing neural nets. When I say I’m not, they immediately look at me with scorn – I can’t possibly be revolutionary, I’m not doing the Standard Revolutionary thing.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, so how did you come up with the assertion I quoted in 10:09am post?

  • dilys

    Reading the study Anders referred to makes me wonder about the fit of “openness-to-experience[OTE]” with “freethinker[F].” For instance, the creativity and intelligence of OTE, and its susceptibility to adjust to outside input (e.g. anchors), wouldn’t (s)he likely adapt quickly to the interviewer’s style and be less “freethinker” appearing?

    I think of F as one who is more reflexively or obsessively contrarian, at least in reference to certain anchors, needing to distinguish himself from what in the environment he perceives as asking him to adapt, and from an unconscious fear of the devouring Other(s). As noted, it may also imply a Shadow Tribalism–the Standard Revolutionary Thing.

    The definitional issues here are so fuzzy that I don’t think we can take it very far. A “freethinker” who wears flip-flops to weddings because they are comfortable vs. F who does the offensive opposite of what is expected vs. F who blends superficially but thinks deeply and diverges from the crowd on hot issues vs. F who agrees with all the other F’s…

    And Eliezer’s example of boxed-up outside-the-box approaches raises the associated issue of trust cues, which may be a box of worms crawling beneath this discussion 🙂

  • Robin Hanson

    Hopefully, writers do not typically prove every claim they make. Central claims are given more explicit support than peripheral claims.
    I did not consider the claim you are focused on to be central to the post.

  • eric

    Creative people are often neurotic, and tend to have more anxiety, lower self-esteem and lower tolerance for stress than other individuals. They also tend to entertain lots of wacky ideas. The are like prima donas, valuable assets that must be managed, not indulged.

  • albatross

    I definitely notice people with a small number of unusual ideas vs people who are endless fonts of them. A small number of carefully-thought-through unusual or unpopular ideas implies something more like a cautious willingness to go outside the realm of comfortable ideas, rather than love of the weird and wild.

    It also matters how people approach unusual ideas. Is this dogma or something that looks true, and you can say why you think it’s true? Do you appear to have thought through the obvious questions (like why is this idea so unusual, why are you more likely to be right about it than the rest of the world, etc.)?

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, I never claimed writers did. I’m genuinely curious how you came up with the assertion I quoted in the June 14, 10:09am post.

  • TGGP

    eric, in five-factor personality tests, the only one linked to creativity is “Openness to Experience”, with Neuroticism not correlated with Openness or IQ/creativity. Gene Expression has intros on these topics here and here.

  • Tony

    I thought freethinking was linked to politics and Masonry. If I may refer to Switzerland … the League of Independents party in Switzerland is Catholic freethinkers. It affiliated with Migros, which has a role in Switzerland like Walmart in the USA. Swiss freethinking may also be related to the mercenary institution, i.e., going even further back.

    IMHO you’re taking too individualistic a view of it.

  • denis bider

    Robin: “Contrary to their self-image, undiscriminating freethinkers are our main obstacle to innovation.”

    I agree with Hopefully Anonymous in questioning the support for this statement of Robin’s. I further disagree with Robin’s assertion that authors need to provide less support for peripheral claims than to central claims.

    Firstly, what the authors perceives as a peripheral claim may well be perceived as a central claim by readers.

    Secondly, as in this case, when the “peripheral” claim appears in the last sentence of the post, it will not be perceived merely as non-peripheral, but will be perceived as a conclusion.

    Thirdly, even making truly peripheral claims while lacking support for them indicates a lack of discipline on behalf of the writer, and indicates that the central claims can likely not be trusted, either. If the writer is sloppy enough to make unfounded peripheral claims, it becomes more likely that he lacks the discipline of mind to validate all of his central claims, as well.

    He is more likely to be biased.

  • BrianMacker


    You give the definition of freethinker but then you confuse it with the definition of “crank” or perhaps “open minded to the point of not having any critical filter”.

    The “rational” of “rational inquiry” is all about filters. Filters like: 1) Not believing that Noah’s Ark could possibly fit every animal on the planet. 2) Catching on to the fact the story of Doubting Thomas encourages a bad form of filtering, reject the questioning of dogma as a sin. That’s a filter thats prone to error.

    It’s precisely the reverse of the way you see things.

  • Robin Hanson

    Brian, most people would not call someone with strong filters, reluctant to believe much, a “free thinker.”

  • Brian Macker

    That’s exactly what a freethinker is, some reluctant to believe in god because of his strong rationality filters.

  • Democritus

    A world full of sheep who bleat in unison is a world where no new innovations happen, eventually leading to stagnation and extinction.

    Who was it who said that all progress is made by the person considered to be unreasonable by society?

  • J.C. Samuelson

    Coming late to the party here, but nevertheless felt compelled to comment mainly because the definition of “freethinker” that opens the post doesn’t seem to match the type of individual actually discussed. I apologize in advance for the length of this comment, which is unfortunately disproportionate to the length of the original post.

    To begin, I’ve found that there is a distinction to be made between the portmanteau word “freethinker” and the adjective phrase “free thinker.” The former word refers to someone who, as the opening definition states, rejects dogma – especially religious – in favor of skeptical inquiry or rationality, while the latter word refers to the type of person Robin actually describes – someone who takes pride in being a non-conformist (or attempting to be so), contrarian, or original for originality’s sake.

    Now, it does seem that Robin may understand this distinction, if only because in both the opening sentence of the original post and his last comment he uses the adjective phrase “free thinker” for his discussion. So, it appears that his error on this issue might merely have been to confuse or mix definitions between his opening citation and his discussion.

    Then again, maybe Robin does have difficulty understanding the difference after all. In the second paragraph and throughout the remainder of the original post he uses the portmanteau word to proceed. Furthermore, in his first comment, while he correctly (I think) states that “between generation and development must come evaluation,” he incorrectly associates freethinkers (as opposed to free thinkers) with “[getting] in the way” by failing to associate the “rational inquiry” clause of the original definition with “evaluation.” I think even Robin might agree that evaluation must be at the core (or perhaps the goal) of rational inquiry, because performing a proper evaluation of virtually any proposition requires a rational approach, and if freethinkers do, in fact, favor evaluation, then it is not freethinkers who get in the way, is it?

    In his last comment Robin also oversimplifies Brian Macker’s assessment when he recasts it as describing someone “reluctant to believe much.” Such a person might also be described negatively as a cynic. Now, maybe a person who has strong filters is reluctant to believe much – of what s/he is told. But there is a rather large chasm, I think, between favoring rational inquiry and reluctance. As I hinted at above, a person who favors rational inquiry promotes the active search for answers to questions of validity, demanding that propositions be evaluated according to the principles of rational inquiry. All a freethinker really asks, in terms of willingness to accept a proposition as valid, is that a proposition be vetted by evidence and logic following a careful examination. I’m not sure it would be accurate to characterize this as reluctance. A better word would be discernment.

    Being charitable, perhaps this issue is something Robin subtly inserted into this post to challenge the audience to see how bias may manifest itself. How a topic is presented in terms of word usage and sentence formation often reveals bias. So, perhaps Robin has simply given the audience something to work with and think about, thereby helping to equip us to “Overcome Bias.” 😉

    On the other issue that was raised regarding the unfounded assertion that “undiscriminating freethinkers are our main obstacle to innovation,” I’ll start by pointing out that, again in terms of definitions, “undiscriminating freethinkers” is an oxymoron. According to the dictionary reference given, a freethinker is by definition a discriminating person. That is, if we take it as settled that rational inquiry requires at least some ability to discriminate effectively between competing notions.

    Second, while Robin dismisses his final assertion as peripheral, I have to admit that it does appear to be his conclusion. Maybe this is just more clumsiness in his presentation, but to be perfectly blunt, I’m highly skeptical. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Robin is disingenuously avoiding the issue by calling it “peripheral.” Leading his audience toward this very conclusion does appear to be Robin’s objective. Recall that in his second paragraph, Robin states that “On net, however, freethinkers deserve much of the blame for resistance to new ideas.” What is the final sentence if not a re-phrasing of the earlier one? Not only that, but he even offers support for this proposition, and goes on to characterize freethinkers as “less desirable as associates, and less discriminating in which ideas they endorse.” On balance, it’s abundantly clear that the final assertion that freethinkers are “our main obstacle to innovation” is the central point – perhaps even the only point – of Robin’s post.

    There is, however, a final caveat. Earlier, I allowed that Robin propably understands the distinction between “free thinker” and “freethinker.” I suspect Robin probably intended to talk about the former rather than the latter. After all, the article he cites in support is discussing non-conformists in the context of economics and business, and Robin does give his actual working definition (gleaned from Wikipedia) following his citation of American Heritage. Thus, I think the real problem may be nothing more than poor communication through misuse of conflicting definitions.

    Commenting on whether his central premise is correct or not is, well, a bit beyond my scope of knowledge. But it’s only fair that having taken this much space, I should at least say something about Robin’s intended subject. To get “on topic” as they say.

    It’s quite possible that non-conformists get in the way of innovation. However, it seems to me that almost every innovation so far has been originally conceived of by someone willing to think “outside the box;” someone who eschewed conventional thinking and pushed the boundaries. No doubt some innovations caused considerable controversy, having a negative impact on productivity as businesses were forced to re-evaluate their paradigms and create new processes. So, perhaps it’s not that non-conformists present an obstacle to innovation. Instead, perhaps the real obstacle they present is to efficiency, at least in the short term.

    Thanks to Robin and Eliezer for graciously allowing one overly analytical (I’ve been told I epitomize the first half of that word) Freethinker to spend a bit of time (and space) on their blog. Although this is my first visit, I suspect lurking and reading the materials here will be most enjoyable. The mistakes we make in thinking about and communicating our ideas (including bias especially) is one of my favorite topics.

  • Jay Ballou

    Brian, most people would not call someone with strong filters, reluctant to believe much, a “free thinker.”

    Argumentum ad gentium. Most people are ignorant, as you are. You rashly conflate freethinkers — skeptics — with “open minded” gullible consumers of woo.

    They describe themselves positively as favoring rationality, but in practice their negative self-definition seems to have more force.

    One of many baseless claims.

  • Jay Ballou

    Contrary to their self-image, undiscriminating freethinkers are our main obstacle to innovation.

    All the work in that sentence is done by the word “undiscriminating”. But “undiscriminating freethinker” is an oxymoron — “freethinker” simply does not mean what you think it means; check Brian Macker’s link. Change your title to “Against undiscriminating thinkers” and you’ll have a start at not talking nonsense.

  • a soulless automaton

    Leaving aside the dispute over the definition of “freethinker”, it sounds to me like the fault lies just as much with the person who rejects someone with unconventional ides purely on the basis of their unconventionality. The individual with the ideas is probably at worst deluded; the individual rejecting is engaging in an aggressive, deliberate failure to think.

    As the saying goes, there are two types of fools; the one who says “This is old, and therefore good”, and the one who says “This is new, and therefore better.”

  • George Geo

    Memetics is the future, a revolution of the mind. Free-thinkers will set us free.

  • Vincenton

    There is a neo-mystic group that tries to display a pathetic veneer of rationality and sense of motive when in truth and in reality, it is a great enemy of reason and individual liberty. The strategy it employs is no longer unfamiliar to us since its proponents and followers are merely imitating the statist schemes of their collectivist/altruist intellectual and philosophical ancestors.
    This loud, skeptic collective—the Filipino Freethinkers, which deserves the moniker “Free-farters”—declares that it is engaged in the promotion of reason, science, and freedom. Its liberal, welfare-statist creator and its radical fanatics, came up with a crude understanding of reason as if it stands side-by-side with science, or perhaps even math.

    Filipino Free-farters: enemy of reason

    The psycho-epistemology of the Free-farters is revealed by its eccentric, sophomoric appreciation of reason: “When you try to use reason and science to reach your own conclusion about something, you are freethinking.” (emphasis not mine)

    History tells us that the intellectual and philosophical predecessors of the Free-farters also used the power of language to destroy man’s mind. For example, Immanuel Kant, the man who shut the door of philosophy to reason, waged a philosophical war on man’s mind, not by destroying reason but by distorting, negating its concept. By dividing the universe into two—phenomenal world, which is not real, and the noumenal world, which is the ‘real’ reality yet unknowable—Kant declared that man’s mind is impotent.

    However, it may be true that some, if not most, of the Free-farters do not believe in philosophy, but they cannot escape the fact that every single person holds a certain philosophy or belief system. They might say consciously that philosophy is impractical or nonexistent, but the very fact that they are espousing a mongrel idea proves that they hold a certain form of reasoning. When an individual says, “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true,” he is actually echoing the idea of Kant.
    On the other hand, the man who shut the door of freedom to reason is Karl Marx, who pulled an impractical joke on humanity by contriving an idea that distorted the true essence of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice. Karl Marx, who is the intellectual ancestor of most unthinking, careless atheists of today, held that man cannot take care of himself, thus he needs the omnipotent and ever benevolent guidance and presence of a higher being, which is the state. If the religionists believed that the source of all wealth and welfare is an unknowable deity or a supernatural being they call God, the new breed of atheists hold that the sole provider of man’s needs is the society or the state by means of limiting or abrogating of private property and of redistributing wealth.

  • christopher v.

    For what it is worth I think the term freethinker is an oxymoron in an of itself. If one is compelled to think about things than one is a slave to subjective experience and interpretation. The stupid birds in the trees are more capable of actual freethinking than humans because their lack of awareness affords them no desire to understand or figure things out philosophically. They simply behave, while we contemplate our behavior and become chained to the realization of it. Our wills are not free and our thoughts are not free. We are all slaves to the process of thought. And however one might desire to be in control and believe him/herself rational, rational understanding undermines any belief in control, freedom (or even morality) as the evidence for such things is as absent as the evidence for the existence of God. So many people who call themselves “freethinkers” slavishly preach about morality and atheistic ideologies, as if the very nihilistic nature of our seemingly accidental existence is not ever present in their desperate (and quite often socially hostile and/or egotistical) rants against those they see as inferior due to some arbitrary (in the greater scheme of things) aspect of perspective. Besides, life is so much more interesting when one can at least shake off labels and the need to cast blame and just live.

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