How to be Radical

Recently I posted on how freethinkers are obstacles to innovation, by being both undiscriminating on ideas and undesirable as social associates.  Today let me outline how best to be radical, if you must.

Freethinkers who work on a radical idea or project tend to shoot themselves in the foot by trying to be radical on as many dimensions as possible.  For example, if they manage to get funding for a startup pursuing their radical software product, they try to also be radical on software tools, project management, office location and organization, personnel, compensation, meeting times, work hours, marketing, and so on.  In their personal lives they try to be radical on romance, household organization, medical care, education, clothing, music, and so on.  This freethinker strategy of being radical on every possible dimension pretty much guarantees that something will go very wrong with at least one of these dimensions. 

To have the best chance of succeeding in a radical project, you should instead choose just a few related dimensions on which to make radical choices, and then make conservative conventional choices on all the other dimensions.  This strategy minimizes the chance that some other project dimension will go badly wrong and take down your central radical idea with it.

While all-dimension-radical freethinker projects have little chance of success, their looming wreckage can be a great place to look for promising radical ideas to pursue – many a successful radical project idea was "stolen" from freethinker predecessors.   So if you are shopping for a radical idea to pursue, make friends with ambitious freethinkers – but don’t pick up their undiscriminating habits. 

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, great post. Semelweiss (sp?) is probably a good cautionary tale of how being unconventional in multiple dimensions can harm the area where it was most useful to society for one to be unconventional. Would Aubrey De Gray be more effective in his quest to cure aging if he shaved his beard and dressed conservatively and conventionally? Or alternatively, is he cleverly performing being an eccentric genius because it will actually facilitate the spread of his ideas (think Einstein’s hairdo). Sometimes it may actually be a smart decision, preying on conventional bias, to perform general eccentricity. Sort of like the earlier overcoming bias post on the potential value of preying on in-group/out-group bias to actually get people to behave more in our rational interest on topics like environmental policy. So clearly Semelweiss’ abrasive personal nature is a bad trait in free thinkers when it impedes the spread of a good idea that they’ve innovated. Nonconforming performances like Einstein’s hairdo, however, may help.

  • Between Paul Graham and Christopher Hitchens, this topic is pretty well-covered: Graham advises that you pick your friends carefully and tell them just about everything; Hitch says to pick your controversies carefully and share them with nearly everyone.

    Either strategy probably works. To some extent, it might just be an introvert/extrovert problem.

  • I once told a budding freethinker, “Don’t depart from the norm just for the sake of being different. If you depart from the norm only when there is an overwhelmingly urgent need to do so, you shall have more than enough trouble to last you the rest of your life.”

    I’m always the one at the party who ends up defending the Scientific Orthodoxy. But I confess I hadn’t really thought of applying the above principle to everyday life. I shall have to think about that.

    Everyday life does not have the same experimental underpinning as Scientific Orthodoxy; that is, we have much less reason to believe popular life habits are good for us than we do to believe in the Scientific Orthodoxy. On the other hand, if you do everything differently for the sake of being different, it does indeed seem almost certain that you’ll shoot off your own feet…

    There is much Life Orthodoxy that comes in package deals; if you bypass the academic system to get your training, you’ll also have a much harder time getting the government grant system to fund your work, and so on. So sometimes, if you have a strong enough reason to leave the norm on one dimension, you find that you have to end up being strange on other dimensions too. This is, indeed, very inconvenient – but it doesn’t have the same automatic catastrophe status as rejecting a package deal in Scientific Orthodoxy.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Eliezer (and Robin), if you haven’t been exposed to it yet, I think you’ll find Hoffman’s work (and follow-up writings that cite Hoffman) on covering and performance interesting. I think it’s had quite an impact in psychology, sociology, and the law (particularly critical theory). I’m unaware if it’s been applied specifically to science, free thinkers, academia, and organizing and communicating to solve collective action problems, but I think it would be enlightening to those topics.

  • Eliezer, ordinary practice typically has an enormous experimental practice behind it. What it usually doesn’t have is controlled experiments to help one disentangle effects.

  • Robin, I would distinguish between enormous practice and enormous experimental practice. Bleeding patients to restore the balance of their humours had an enormous practice behind it, but not an enormous experimental practice. If you don’t collect the results of the experiments, it’s not really an experiment – people who sit back and watch apples fall from trees aren’t performing experiments on gravity.

    Again, I agree that deliberately being different on life practices is going to shoot your foot off sooner or later, but it’s not quite the same situation as deciding when to reject a scientific orthodoxy.

    H. Anonymous, Hoffman+covering was insufficient as a Google keyword.

  • Patri Friedman

    Completely agreed. In the seasteading book, while we highlight neat wacky new technologies for fun (ie vanadium redox batteries), in general we try to stick to conventional tried-and-true stuff. It’s hard enough to do one crazy thing, let alone 10 crazy things at once.

  • Bleeding patients to restore the balance of their humours had an enormous practice behind it, but not an enormous experimental practice.

    Come on. We now know that very much of medicine’s success is due to placebo effects. That even applies to many surgical techniques. So what you really want is a really convincing version of the shaman or witch doctor for whatever culture you happen to live in. The key is to make sure whatever version of the face paint, rattles and tambourines you use don’t become an inadvertant cause of iatrogenic death. Not sure we’re doing any better on that measure than our leech-prescribing predecessors. . .

  • Robert Rounthwaite

    Excellent point. It’s important to realize, though (regarding one of the ealier posts), that, although we may think of certain hairstyles or styles of clothing as “radical,” they are, in fact, not, but rather conventional signals that the person intends to be thought of as radical. Unless one is truly radical in this area (wearing little clothes in the winter, say, in order to burn more calories and lose weight), it’s hard for me to see how that could interfere with success in some other area. I’d say that as long as you are using clothing to correctly signal to others, you aren’t being “radical”. (So a banker could be radical by dressing oddly and would be risking no longer signaling safety and competency, but an eccentric life-extension advocate is not beeing radical by dressing to reflect that reality.)

  • Eliezer, my memory was jogged by a recent commentor on “looking glass self”. The sociologist is Erving Goffman.

  • Eliezer (and Robin), if you haven’t been exposed to it yet, I think you’ll find Hoffman’s work (and follow-up writings that cite Hoffman) on covering and performance interesting.

  • eris

    I was ready to kiss someone when I found this site. People working to overcome cognitive bias? Fantastic!

    Then, I read these two articles.

    Evidence, Hanson?

  • Robin, your “free thinker” whose “negative self-definition seems to have more force” on him than rationality is a character I recognize from conversations, accusations, and sour opinions of my own, but not from real life. I don’t think that’s anybody’s actual central motivation. I don’t think that characterizes the middle of the clump of “free thinkers.”

    I remember people with strong individual ideas, styles and approaches, and sometimes strong ideas about how to judge truth or falsehood. And of course all of these have ramifications. I remember cranky, lonely and broken people. Also I can think of lots of rationales for respecting or pursuing unconventionality per se in certain contexts.

    I agree a lot of us have a reactions against conventional ways that we should watch for. “Shooting yourself in the foot” is a good metaphor for depriving yourself of a safe support while making a risky grab.

    I suppose my main problem with this advice is that, to a weirdo, it’s not weirdness but conformity that seems problematic and to require deliberate effort. The idea that he’s turning up the weirdness knob and just needs to ease off… might have more truth to it than weirdos like me like to admit, but if so it’s hard or elusive.

  • “Another personality defect is ego assertion and I’ll speak in this case of my own experience. I came from Los Alamos and in the early days I was using a machine in New York at 590 Madison Avenue where we merely rented time. I was still dressing in western clothes, big slash pockets, a bolo and all those things. I vaguely noticed that I was not getting as good service as other people. So I set out to measure. You came in and you waited for your turn; I felt I was not getting a fair deal. I said to myself, “Why? No Vice President at IBM said, `Give Hamming a bad time’. It is the secretaries at the bottom who are doing this. When a slot appears, they’ll rush to find someone to slip in, but they go out and find somebody else. Now, why? I haven’t mistreated them.” Answer, I wasn’t dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that – I wasn’t dressing properly. I had to make the decision – was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly. The moment I did, I got much better service. And now, as an old colorful character, I get better service than other people.

    John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It’s wasted effort! I didn’t say you should conform; I said “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.
    When they moved the library from the middle of Murray Hill to the far end, a friend of mine put in a request for a bicycle. Well, the organization was not dumb. They waited awhile and sent back a map of the grounds saying, “Will you please indicate on this map what paths you are going to take so we can get an insurance policy covering you.” A few more weeks went by. They then asked, “Where are you going to store the bicycle and how will it be locked so we can do so and so.” He finally realized that of course he was going to be red-taped to death so he gave in. He rose to be the President of Bell Laboratories.

    …Many a second-rate fellow gets caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody’s has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be? Be clear, when you fight the system and struggle with it, what you are doing, how far to go out of amusement, and how much to waste your effort fighting the system.”

    Richard Hamming, “You and Your Research”