Monthly Archives: March 2014

Prefer Contrarian Questions

Many people are attracted to authority. They are eager to defend what authorities say against heretics who say otherwise. This lets them signal a willingness to conform, and gain status by associating with higher status authorities against lower status heretics.

Other people are tempted to be contrarians. My blog readers tend more this way. Contrarians are eager to find authorities with which they disagree, and to associate with similar others. In this way contrarians can affirm standard forager anti-dominance norms, bond more strongly to a group, and hope for glory later if their contrarian positions becomes standard.

I haven’t posted much on disagreement here lately, but contrarians should be disturbed by the basic result that knowing disagreement is irrational. That is, it is less accurate to knowingly disagree with others unless one has good reasons to think you are more rational than they in the sense of listening more to the info implicit in their opinions.

Today I want to point out a way that contrarians can stay contrarians, taking an authority defying position they can share with like-minded folks and which might later lead to glory, while avoiding most of the accuracy-reducing costs of disagreement: be contrarian on questions, not answers.

Academia has well known biases regarding the topics it studies. Academia is often literature-driven, clumping around a few recently-published topics and neglecting many others. Academia also prefers topics where one can show off careful mastery of difficult and thus impressive methods, and so neglects topics worse suited for such displays.

Of course academia isn’t the only possible audience when selling ideas, but the other possible customers also have known topic biases. For example, popular writings are biased toward topics which are easy to explain to their audience, which flatter that audience, and which pander to their biases.

The existence of these known topic biases suggests how to be a more accurate contrarian: disagree with academia, the popular press, etc. on what questions are worth studying. While individuals may at times disagree with you on the importance of the topics you champion, after some discussion they will usually cave and accept your claim that academia, etc. has these topic biases, and that one should expect your topic to be neglected as a result.

Some academics will argue that only standard difficult academic methods are informative, and all other methods give only random noise. But the whole rest of the world functions pretty well drawing useful conclusions without meeting standard academic standards of method or care. So it must be possible to make progress on topics not best suited for showing off mastery of difficult academic methods.

So if your topic has some initial or surface plausibility as an important topic, and is also plausibly neglected by recent topic fashion and not well suited for showing off difficult academic methods, you have a pretty plausible contrarian case for the importance of your topic. That is, you are less likely to be wrong about this emphasis, even though it is a contrarian emphasis.

Now your being tempted to be contrarian on questions suggests that you are the sort of person who is also tempted to be contrarian on answers. Because of this, for maximum accuracy you should probably bend over backwards to not be contrarian on which answers you favor to your contrarian question. Focus your enjoyment of defying authorities on defying their neglect of your questions, but submit to them on how to answer those questions. Try as far as possible to use very standard assumptions and methods, and be reluctant to disagree with others on answers to your questions. Resist the temptation to too quickly dismiss others who disagree on answers because they have not studied your questions as thoroughly as you. Once you get some others to engage your question in some detail, take what they say very seriously, even if you have studied far more detail than they.

With this approach, the main contrarian answer that you must endorse is a claim about yourself: that you don’t care as much about the rewards that attract others to the usual topics. Most people work on standard topics because those usually give the most reliable paths to academic prestige, popular press popularity, etc. And honestly, most people who think they don’t care much about such things are just wrong. So you’ll need some pretty strong evidence in support of your claim that you actually differ enough in your preferences to act differently. But fortunately, your being deluded about this can’t much infect the accuracy of your conclusions about your contrarian topic. Even if you are mistaken on why you study it, your conclusions are nearly as likely to be right.

This is the approach I’ve tried to use in my recent work on the social implications of brain emulations. This is very contrarian as a topic, in the sense that almost no one else works on it, or seems inclined that way. But it has an initial plausibility as very important, at least if one accepts standard conclusions in some tech and futurist worlds. It is plausibly neglected as having negative associations and being less well suited for impressive methods. And I try to use pretty standard assumptions and methods to infer answers to my contrarian question. Of course none of that protects me from delusions on the rewards I expect to forgo by focusing on this topic.

Added 7Mar: People are already in the habit of pleasantly tolerating a wider range of opinion on which questions are important, both because differing values contribute, and because people tend to strongly overestimate the importance of the questions they work on personally.

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Moral Legacy Myths

Imagine that you decide that this week you’ll go to a different doctor from your usual one. Or that you’ll get a haircut from a different hairdresser. Ask yourself: by how much do you expect such actions to influence the distant future of all our descendants? Probably not much. As I argued recently, we should expect most random actions to have very little long term influence.

Now imagine that you visibly take a stand on a big moral question involving a recognizable large group. Like arguing against race-based slavery. Or defending the Muslim concept of marriage. Or refusing to eat animals. Imagine yourself taking a personal action to demonstrate your commitment to this moral stand. Now ask yourself: by how much do you expect these actions to influence distant descendants?

I’d guess that even if you think such moral actions will have only a small fractional influence on the future world, you expect them to have a much larger long term influence than doctor or haircut actions. Furthermore, I’d guess that you are much more willing to credit the big-group moral actions of folks centuries ago for influencing our world today, than you are willing to credit people who made different choices of doctors or hairdressers centuries ago.

But is this correct? When I put my social-science thinking cap on, I can’t find good reasons to expect big-group moral actions to have much stronger long term influence. For example, you might posit that moral opinions are more stable than other opinions and hence last longer. But more stable things should be harder to change by any one action, leaving the average influence about the same.

I can, however, think of a good reason to expect people to expect this difference: near-far (a.k.a construal level) theory. Acts based on basic principles seem more far than acts based on practical considerations. Acts identified with big groups seem more far than acts identified with small groups. And longer-term influence is also more strongly associated with a far view.

So I tentatively lean toward concluding that this expectation of long term influence from big-group moral actions is mostly wishful thinking. Today’s distribution of moral actions and the relations between large groups mostly result from a complex equilibrium of people today, where random disturbances away from that equilibrium are usually quickly washed away. Yes, sometimes they’ll be tipping points, but those should be rare, as usual, and each of us can only expect to have a small fraction influence on such things.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss related topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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