What makes a contrarian? Why they play a critical role in society. And why tolerance of nonsense is essential (and the ‘precautionary principle’ only holds us back)
If I were to say to you that everything you disagree with me about makes you wrong, and, that I am right, what would be your knee-jerk reaction? You certainly wouldn’t like it. Excluding those who’ve by some means immunised themselves to criticism, nobody likes being wrong about anything. At least initially. If I also said that most people who think like you are also wrong, well, you may now start thinking I’m confused, deluded, a wacky contrarian, or just looking for trouble. You would must certainly think that I am wrong. For, how could it be that I am right, and you and everyone else is wrong!? What are the chances of that? How dare I think that!? ’The very definition of haughtiness.’
But is it?
Let’s construct a random list of people much admired (from past and present) for their ideas, achievements, teachings, etc. And for clarity, let’s categorise them by the fields on which they play(ed).
Physics: Einstein, Newton, Feynman, Kepler, Galileo
Modern physics, AI: Gerry Sussman, Donald Hoffman, David Deutsch, Nick Bostrom
Business: Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Peter Thiel, Donald Trump
Politics, Public Thought and Discourse: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein, Bret Weinstein, Christopher Hitchens, Nassim Taleb, Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, Tony Robbins
Philosophy: Bertrand Russell, Kant, Hume, Jordan Peterson, David Deutsch
Economics: Friedrich Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, Tom Sowell,
Medicine: Hippocrates, Freud, Semmelweis
Ancient Philosophy: Epicurus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle
Looking for commonalities is often a futile pursuit — far more fruitful to look for differences. But one thing stands out about the aforementioned people other than the fact that they’re all male is that they all have a streak of contrarianism. Einstein was ridiculed, and is today still criticized for his approach. Feynman was unlike any of his contemporaries. Elon Musk is shooting rockets into space, Peter Thiel is trying to defeat ageing, Nick Bostrom is teaching simulation theory, and Donald Trump is the president. Gerry Sussman believes we don’t know how to compute, and Nassim Taleb says we’re all much more stupid than we think. These aren’t instances of ‘following the crowd’.
For most of history, going ‘against the grain’ was punishable by exile or death: Epicurus was forced from two countries, which led him to Athens, where still he could only teach from his famous garden; Socrates was put to death for poisoning the minds of the Athenian youths with the very tools that drove the enlightenment: relentless questioning, reason, logic; Phillip Semmelweis was ridiculed, rejected, committed to an asylum and beaten to death for telling practitioners to wash their hands. Less tragically but no less preposterous, Galileo was jailed for claiming that the earth is not the centre of the universe; only after renouncing himself was his sentence commuted to house arrest, under which he remained for the rest of his life.
Today it’s a lot safer to be a contrarian. Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and the rest of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’.1 are constantly and woefully mislabelled as dangerous, ‘gateways to ideology’, ‘alt right’, ‘wacky’, and whatever else. This isn’t pleasant nor fair, but it’s incomparable to ostracisation, imprisonment, or death by stone.
By now you might be wondering whether you are a contrarian. First of all, by contrarian, I mean a person who actively disagrees with the majority about a wide range of fundamental issues — so much so that typically they’re called ‘outsiders’ or ‘recluses’, or something as such. One unconventional viewpoint does not qualify someone as a contrarian — just as much as two stacked stones doesn’t really qualify as a pile. The conviction with which a person speaks of their views also matters; and whether they are eccentric teachers or introverted monks; and so too their willingness to shift position in light of new evidence or better philosophical argument. And so on. To go back to our two stones, the shape and size of each stone, and the compactness and visual appeal when stacked, matter to their quest for pilehood. Clearly, this reductionist lens isn’t telling us much: much like Sorites paradox, it is the wrong emphasis. A more abstract definition is required, such as
a contrarian is a person who:
1) holds many unconventional views, that 1a) are prone to trigger tribal instincts, and 1b) are fundamental (they have a foundational influence on behaviour);
2) they are patently aware of, and unchanged by, this fact; and
3) they do not hide or suppress these unconventional views; and maybe even teach.
Now back to whether you are contrarian. Rather than independent thought, scientific experimentation or philosophical reasoning, it is a combination of convenience, age, popularity and ‘gut-feel’ that maintain the heartbeat of most world views, belief systems, ideologies, theories, ideas, habits, and so on. There are a couple of ways to break out of this archaic, evolution-led pattern. One way is revolution: violence and war, the way of the beasts, the way that guarantees an unpredictable-in-length period of chaos, horror, crippling fear, and death. This way is certainly far easier to undertake than the alternative, but not always fruitful — much unlike the consequences, which are always damning. The alternative is through conversation: conversation between individuals; and a global conversation driven by scientific rigour, strong adherence to the principles of logic, informed reasoning, better explanations etc. If, by exercising these principles, you come to a number of drastically different conclusions than most people you know, then you are a contrarian. If, however, you arrive at different conclusions without exercising enlightenment principles, you can’t be considered a contrarian because you don’t know what you know because you don’t know what you don’t know. And maintaining a contrarian stance in light of this fact (unjustified stubbornness) doesn’t change anything: it simply means that one is mistaken.
Just like saying ‘I can fly’ does not mean that I can fly, by calling myself a contrarian I not automatically become a contrarian. This statement may seem trivial, but believing myself to be capable of unaided flight after simply speaking the words is not a good survival strategy. Likewise, calling myself a contrarian without any justified reason is not going to be productive. Contrarianism is not inherently good: it does not make one right. Contrarians can be wrong! But the difference between a contrarian and stupidity is found in the development of viewpoints: a contrarian arrives at unorthodox conclusions through fierce independent thought and strict abidance to proven principles (namely those of the enlightenment), whereas stupidity is exemplified by opposition for the sake of opposition. Certainty has no effect on accuracy.
It may be a strange thing to say that progress depends on tolerance for nonsense, but this is precisely true, for new knowledge can be indistinguishable from nonsense. The can is the crucial part; we rightfully disregard theories and ideas as ‘nonsense’ all the time, but only if they contradict existing knowledge, or explain nothing, or cannot be tested, or fail experimentation. The nonsense label must come after the fact; by placing it before, we risk missing a cure for cancer, the solution to the ageing problem, and so on. Even if some wacky theory doesn’t directly produce anything groundbreaking, just by not refusing to tolerate it, a conversation could that ultimately leads to groundbreaking developments. These developments wouldn’t have been possible (there’s an infinitesimally low probability of them happening at that time) if there was no space for nonsensical theories. Making this argument into one about causality is also a mistake, because it creates the problem of infinite regress: ‘all arguments lead to X, but what caused X, and what caused that…?’ It isn’t about chains of causality; it’s about advancements in knowledge through continual error-correction.
Just like uninformed questions, which bridge gaps between knowns and unknowns, the contrarian’s relentless probing of cherished, bone-deep norms — often by presenting their own wacky, counterintuitive, unbelievable theories — has long been and will continue to be the primary instigator of advancements in knowledge: not just the paradigm-shifting leaps and bounds, but the small, seemingly indiscernible steps in what is ultimately a better direction.
- A pertinent coinage by economist/physicist/polymath Eric Weinstein. Bari Weiss has written a great piece about the IDW.