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June 26, 2007


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.

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.

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. . .

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.

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?

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