Tag Archives: Contrarian

Extremists Compete

Extremists hold extreme views, and struggle to persuade others of their views, or even to get them to engage such views. Since most people are not extremists, you might think extremists focus mostly on persuading non-extremists. If so, they should have a common cause in getting ordinary people to think outside the usual boxes. They should want to join together to say that the usual views tend to gain from conformity pressures, and that such views are held overconfidently.

But in fact extremists don’t seem interested in joining together to support extremism. While each individual extremist tends to hold multiple extreme views, extremists groups go out of their way to distance themselves from other extremist groups. Not only do they often hate close cousins who they see as having betrayed their cause, they are also hostile to extremists groups on orthogonal topics.

This all makes sense if, as I’ve suggested, there are extremist personality types. Extremist groups have a better chance of attracting these types to their particular sort of extremism, relative to persuading ordinary folks to adopt  extreme views.

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Socializers Clump

Imagine that this weekend you and others will volunteer time to help tend the grounds at some large site – you’ll trim bushes, pull weeds, plant bulbs, etc. You might have two reasons for doing this. First, you might care about the cause of the site. The site might hold an orphanage, or a historical building. Second, you might want to socialize with others going to the same event, to reinforce old connections and to make new ones.

Imagine that instead of being assigned to work in particular areas, each person was free to choose where on the site to work. These different motives for being there are likely to reveal themselves in where people spend their time grounds-tending. The more that someone wants to socialize, the more they will work near where others are working, so that they can chat while they work, and while taking breaks from work. Socializing workers will tend to clump together.

On the other hand, the more someone cares about the cause itself, the more they will look for places that others have neglected, so that their efforts can create maximal value. These will tend to be places places away from where socially-motivated workers are clumped. Volunteers who want more to socialize will tend more to clump, while volunteers who want more to help will tend more to spread out.

This same pattern should also apply to conversation topics. If your main reason for talking is to socialize, you’ll want to talk about whatever everyone else is talking about. Like say the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. But if instead your purpose is to gain and spread useful insight, so that we can all understand more about things that matter, you’ll want to look for relatively neglected topics. You’ll seek topics that are important and yet little discussed, where more discussion seems likely to result in progress, and where you and your fellow discussants have a comparative advantage of expertise.

You can use this clue to help infer the conversation motives of the people you talk with, and of yourself. I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.

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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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Far Truth Is For Extremes

To answer the question posed in my last post, here are some situations where it makes sense to forgo the large benefits of things like religion, to care about far truth:

  1. You are stuck in your ways, like a smoking addict. You admit it would have been better for you had you become more religious early on, but alas you fell in with the wrong crowd, and now the costs of change for you outweigh religion’s gains. If you are nice, you’ll warn young folks to avoid your downfall.
  2. Contrarian far claims with big personal consequences are true. If choosing cryonics would gain you five or more expected years of life (over its costs), and you are one of the rare people who would actually do something so contrarian after being intellectually convinced of its advantages, and if you can reliably discern when a majority is wrong, then you’ll need to think accurately about far topics to find such opportunities. For non-contrarian far claims with personal consequences, you could just follow the crowd without thinking.
  3. You have a good chance of being respected as a far topic expert, by a community that evaluates claims in truth-correlated ways. If you could be a famous cosmologist, you might try to create cosmology claims that will look good when evaluated by the tests cosmologists will apply. The gains from becoming a famous cosmologist could outweigh the risk that by becoming more truth oriented you will forgo religion’s gains. Beware, however, that truth-correlated is not the same as true – most communities say their far claim tests are more truth-correlated than they actually are.

So assuming you actually have a viable choice, the situations where it makes sense to reject religion in favor of far truth are extreme – either there are big personally-useful far contrarian claims to learn, or you have a good shot at being a rare far expert, respected by a community with truth-correlated standards. So if such extremes seem unlikely to you, far truth probably isn’t worth its costs to you. Go away, and sin no more.

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Turbulence Contrarians

A few months ago I came across an intriguing contrarian theory:

Hydrogravitional-dynamics (HGD) cosmology … predicts … Earth-mass planets fragmented from plasma at 300 Kyr [after the big bang]. Stars promptly formed from mergers of these gas planets, and chemicals C, N, O, Fe etc. were created by the stars and their supernovae. Seeded gas planets reduced the oxides to hot water oceans [at 2 Myr], … [which] hosted the first organic chemistry and the first life, distributed to the 1080 planets of the cosmological big bang by comets. … The dark matter of galaxies is mostly primordial planets in proto globular star cluster clumps, 30,000,000 planets per star (not 8!). (more)

Digging further, I found that these contrarians have related views on the puzzlingly high levels of mixing found in oceans, atmospheres, and stars. For example, some invoke fish swimming to explain otherwise puzzling high levels of ocean water mixing. These turbulence contrarians say that most theorists neglect an important long tail of rare bursts of intense turbulence, each followed by long-lasting “contrails.” These rare bursts not only mix oceans and atmospheres, they also supposedly create a more rapid clumping of matter in the early universe, leading to more earlier nomad planets (not tied to stars), which could then lead to early life and its rapid spread.

I didn’t understand turbulence well enough to judge these theories, so I set it all aside. But over the last few months I’ve noticed many reports about puzzling numbers and locations of planets:

What has puzzled observers and theorists so far is the high proportion of planets — roughly one-third to one-half — that are bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. … Furthermore, most of them are in tight orbits around their host star, precisely where the modellers say they shouldn’t be. (more)

Last year, researchers detected about a dozen nomad planets, using a technique called gravitational microlensing, which looks for stars whose light is momentarily refocused by the gravity of passing planets. The research produced evidence that roughly two nomads exist for every typical, so-called main-sequence star in our galaxy. The new study estimates that nomads may be up to 50,000 times more common than that. (more)

This new study was theoretical. It used a best fit power law fit to the distribution of nomad planet microlensing observations to predict ~60 Pluto sized or larger nomad planets per star.  When projected down to the comet scale, this power law actually matches known bounds on comet density. The 95% c.l. upper bound for the power law parameter gives 100,000 such wandering Plutos or larger per star.

I take all this as weak support for something in the direction of these contrarian theories – there are more nomad planets than theorists expected, and some of that may come from neglect of early universe turbulence. But thirty million nomad Plutos per star still seems pretty damn unlikely.

FYI, here is part of an email I sent the authors in mid December, as yet unanswered: Continue reading "Turbulence Contrarians" »

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Contrasting Contrarians

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach … gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change. The early meetings were stormy. “You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!” one of the Christs yelled. “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!” another snapped back. “No two men are Jesus Christs. … I am the Good Lord!” the third interjected, barely concealing his anger. …

Very little seems to shift the identities of the self-appointed Messiahs. They debate, argue, at one point come to blows, but show few signs that their beliefs have become any less intense. Only Leon seems to waver, eventually asking to be addressed as “Dr Righteous Idealed Dung” instead of his previous moniker of “Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Rokeach interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than a reflection of any genuine identity change. The Christs explain one another’s claims to divinity in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an elderly gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the “machines” inside them that produce their false claims, while the other two explain the contradiction by noting that their companions are “crazy” or “duped” or that they don’t really mean what they say. …

Whether scientist or psychiatric patient, we assume others are more likely to be biased or misled than we are, and we take for granted that our own beliefs are based on sound reasoning and observation. This may be the nearest we can get to revelation—the understanding that our most cherished beliefs could be wrong. (more)

Political and religious groups often save their strongest antagonism for groups with similar but a bit different positions. (Think “Judea People’s Front” vs. “People’s Front of Judea.”)  Similarly, contrarian groups tend to be made most uncomfortable not by exposure to mainstream authorities that disagree, but by exposure to other contrarian groups that look similar from a distance, but who have unpalatable beliefs.

For example, contrarians with academic support are happy to discount the non-academic majority, while contrarians opposed by academics are happy to say academics are clueless.  But contrarians with academic support are made uncomfortable by other unpalatable contrarians who also have academic support.

So to help you question your contrarian beliefs, look for other contrarian groups that look similar from a distance, with beliefs you are reluctant to endorse.  Look for groups with similar members or leaders, i.e., similar age, gender, income, academic credentials, tech-orientation, political leaning, years devoted to topic, etc.  If you can’t swallow their beliefs, you’ll have to admit you can’t attribute their mistake to such features.

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Contrarian Excuses

On average, contrarian views are less accurate than standard views.  Honest contrarians should admit this, that neutral outsiders should assign most contrarian views a lower probability than standard views, though perhaps a high enough probability to warrant further investigation.  Honest contrarians who expect reasonable outsiders to give their contrarian view more than normal credence should point to strong outside indicators that correlate enough with contrarians tending more to be right.

Most contrarians, however, prefer less honest positions, like:

  1. “They Laughed At Galileo Too”  Many contrarians seem content merely to point out that contrarian views have sometimes turned out to be right.  Have they no higher aspirations?
  2. “Standard Experts Are Biased” Yes of course we can identify many biases that plausibly afflict standard experts.  But we can also see at least as many biases that plausibly afflict contrarians.  No fair assuming you are less biased just because you feel that way.
  3. “We’ve More Detail Than Critics” Some contrarians say that only explicitly offered detailed arguments and analysis should count; it shouldn’t matter who agrees or disagrees.  And since advocates usually offer more detail in support of their specific arguments than critics offer in response, they automatically win.  They may not have written up their arguments in a standard or accessible style, or published them in standard places, or even submitted them for publication.  But by their “how much stuff we’ve written/done” standard, they win.
  4. “Few Who Study Us Disagree” Some contrarians accept that who agrees or disagrees matters, but say only those who have reviewed most available detail should count.  Since critics have less patience than advocates for studying advocate detail, advocates win.  If many critics do read and reject them, advocates can just add more detail and then complain critics haven’t read that.  If critics do read more advocates can complain critics aren’t of the right sort, e.g., not enough math, sociology, or whatever.  There is usually some way to define “valid” critics so they are outnumbered by advocates.

If you want outsiders to believe you, then you don’t get to choose their rationality standard.  The question is what should rational outsiders believe, given the evidence available to them, and their limited attention.  Ask yourself carefully:  if most contrarians are wrong, why should they believe your cause is different?

(Inspired by this recent argument with Eliezer Yudkowsky.)

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