Contrarians. with Aella
Hi, Agnes. And?
Hi, Aella. Thank you for coming on our podcast.
Well, yeah, thanks for having me.
So we thought we'd start and maybe finish by talking to you about
contrarianism. Are you a contrarian?
What do you mean by contrarian?
I think, so I think it could be understood in two different ways. And one of
them, it was so someone who reliably thinks quite differently from most other
people. That would be one way to think about it. And the other way is somebody
who does that on purpose or for its own sake or intentionally does that. And
that actually maybe now I came up with a third is somebody who is perceived as
doing either one of those two things. Sometimes I think that's all it's meant
by confirming is that other people perceive you as such. So yeah, in one of
Yeah, probably all of them. I think I accidentally think very weird things,
but then also it's very interesting to find out the ways that people are
inconsistent and the ways that yourself are inconsistent, which requires
looking for the gaps. You have to find out. You have to hone in very
specifically on the thing that people consider to be contrary to popular
opinion. If you're trying to be really consistent in a lot of ways. And then
thirdly, a lot of people consider me to be quite saying things for things sake
Let me make a distinction between whether you consider unusual topics and then
what your opinion on that topic is if you consider it in some deck. So that's
how I feel, perhaps, about some of my contrarian views. So clearly, if you
have a person who's a chemist, they're going to have many opinions about
chemistry most people won't have because they're specializing and focusing on
chemistry. And that isn't particularly strange or disreputable. Yet, many of
us have opinions on the usual topics that most people don't have opinions on,
and then they consider us contrarian, and there's something different about
that. I think it's where they... So with chemistry, most people just don't
have any opinion, but there are these other topics where people have opinions,
but they don't think about them. And then they see us as contrarian when we
think in detail about them, they come up with these detailed opinions that
differ from their opinions not based on thinking about
Yeah, you're like, hey, bro, your intuition seems to not make sense if you
squint at it more closely. And then they're like, oh, God, why are you doing
this to me? You are a contrarian. Stop it.
But even say with physics, there are many ways ordinary intuitive physics is
different from professional accurate physics. But people don't call physicists
contrarians for believing in black holes or quantum theory or string theory or
things like that. So there's something else going on.
Wait, so I get called an edgelord a lot more than I get called a contrarian,
and I'm wondering if it's a generational thing. Do you get the contrarian
I've definitely gotten edgelord. So there was somebody who wrote a post about
me calling me an edgelord, and their stick was- And we did a podcast with them
actually about it. Yes, we did a podcast with that person here on this show.
And their shtick was that I would be doing it on purpose. So I think the
edgelord concept was more that you reveled in making people see you as
contrarian, not just that you happen to be contrarian.
Absolutely, contrarian is just like being kind of annoying about it. And being
an edgelord is like rejoicing and being annoying about it.
I want to ask about the inconsistency. You said it's interesting to find how
people are inconsistent and interesting to find how you yourself are
inconsistent. Why is that interesting?
I don't know. Because it means you're wrong somewhere. There's a thing where
often we hold beliefs that are contradictory, but we don't realize they're
contradictory because they're held in kind of different parts of our brain.
And then when you bring them into contact, you realize like, wait, these
cannot both exist in my head at the same time. And that means that I need to
let go of one of them or update. And that's interesting because I don't know
how many things in my head I'm incorrect about. And one of the best ways to
figure that out is through noticing inconsistency.
But it is true that there's a world of people who sort of share points of view
that they accept as a unit. And then when people try to find the
inconsistencies and fix them, those people end up being more contrary. They
end up having different opinions from the usual opinion by trying to eliminate
Well, it seems kind of inevitable, right? What are the chances that the
current social set of norms around thinking are right? Out of all of the human
history that happened and all of the human futures that will happen, what are
the chances that we've got 90% of it correct right now? I think that's super
low. Inevitably, if you just start thinking really hard about something and
really optimize for figuring out a consistent system, it's just going to be
contrary, almost necessarily.
But if everybody believed that, then they would be eager to find these
contrarian views and copy them and accept them. And the apparent observation
is these contrarians go in all possible directions. That is that the
widespread perception is that you have the usual point of view. And then when
these people think about things, trying to eliminate their consistencies, they
just go everywhere. They don't go consistently go in the same direction. They
go in all possible directions.
Do you agree with this?
Well, when you aggregate at a broad enough level, it's roughly true. That is
to say, do they go left or right politically, or for older young people, or
male versus female? If you just pick a few standard directions, it does seem
like the people who think a lot tend to have more divergent opinions in a wide
range of these dimensions.
Yeah, this is true. I guess it depends on the kind of inconsistency that
you're trying to figure out. I think there's a lot of things that kind of look
like you're trying to figure out inconsistencies, but aren't. There's some
people on Twitter I'm aware of where it feels like it's more of a social
performative role. Actually, I don't think people say that about me, but it
feels like it's actually more of a social performative role than it is this
earnest direct truth finding thing. And I think from the outside, it's kind of
hard to tell apart, especially if you're a little naive about it or new, or if
you haven't figured out good strategies for thinking properly or whatever.
Rationality stuff, basically, is what I'm thinking of.
Right. So I think you're exactly right. That is, a lot of people see this
difference between taking ordinary opinion and thinking about it, and they
kind of LARP that. And the way to LARP it is just to end up with a variety of
weird opinions that you can defend with arguments. That's what it looks like
from a distance to have thought about something. And that's how they play it
It seems to me that it's pretty important. So the thing that Ayo said earlier,
which is like, there are all these different norms, but what are the chances
that we've hit on the right ones? The idea that there is a right one, there's
like a possibility of getting it right or doing something correctly. I think
that that's gotta be key to the difference between the performative contrarian
and the not merely performative contrarian, which is to say, if you're just
doing it as a performance, then in effect, you're not that attuned to the
question, are these the right ones? You're just trying to find like a nice
collection or something, maybe even just a consistent collection. And Robin,
this connects to something we were talking about earlier today about your
skepticism that there are correct answers. Now, our conversation was about
emotion and feeling, but like that you could equally well raise it about
norms. So there's a question like, it seems to me a lot hangs on the question,
are there right norms.
What are you asking about? Like norms in what regard?
Wherever you point out an inconsistency. Say the person believes or if it's
going to be normative, they're going to tend to behave or tend to praise or
shame X and then they're also going to tend to praise or shame like not X. Do
the opposite, right? And then they're being inconsistent, right? And what's
the interest of pointing that out? And you say, well, they can't both be
right. Yeah. But maybe neither of them is right. Maybe there's no right. In
which case, the interest of pointing out the inconsistency goes away, except
as a performance.
Yeah, I kind of, like, ultimately I sort of think of correctness not as like,
I know this is kind of heresy. I'm not sure I fully agree, but I'm going to
say it, which is I kind of feel like the truth is not ... There's no objective
truth. There's only consistency. I feel quite amenable to worldview systems
that are consistent even if they're separate, or they in themselves don't
agree with each other. Often I'll be probing at somebody's role to you and be
like, what about this? These two things don't make sense. But then if they
bite all the bullets and they're like, yes, it's consistent all the way down,
then I feel like I don't have a fight with them anymore, even if I don't
really agree with the conclusion. I'm like, okay, you're cohesive. I feel like
I'm just looking for cohesivity as opposed to correctness, if that makes
I think that each person, from their point of view, has some concept of truth
they're going for. I mean, at least that's how it feels to them at the time.
You could say it's relative to some way that they're different from other
people. But I think from the point of understanding contrarianism, the
difference isn't that some people don't believe in truth or not. That is, it
seems to me there's just something else going on that's making some people
contrarian, other people not, than whether or not they believe there is some,
you know, objective standard. There's these areas where we tend to say there
is no objective truth, like say artistic genres. And so it might be
interesting to compare contrarianism in those arenas with contrarianism
elsewhere, where people tend to believe that there is some truth, like say
UFOs or something. Then do we see a difference in contrarianism in those two
areas? If we don't see much difference, we might than attribute processes that
don't have much to do with whether there's a truth.
I'm not sure I totally understand. I could imagine contrarianism coming from
different places. Maybe you want the attention, maybe you want the sense of
being on the cutting edge of novel thinking or something. Maybe I'm not
understanding, but different kinds of contrarianism
That's exactly the question, right? Agnes introduced this question of, is
there really a truth, say, about some moral or norm questions? And my first
question is, is that relevant to our topic of understanding the different
kinds of contrarianism and their nature and their sources and et cetera? And
in order to study that, we might ask, well, in areas where we all agree there
isn't so much of a truth, do we see contrarianism be different? If not, then
it's not necessarily, it's not obviously the relevant thing.
What is contrarianism in the art industry?
I don't know anything about this. Well, some people like weird art and some
people like mainstream art and people disagree a lot about the art.
Contrarian concept though? Like if you're making weird art, are you being
Well, that's exactly my question. Okay. That is, is that look different or
not? In terms of social behavior or the way people criticize them or things
Yeah, I don't know.
It seems to me that when people all like a certain movie and somebody says,
oh, I hate that, they think they're wrong and they think they're being
contrarian. Okay, that's true.
I guess anytime there's a consensus, it's going to be possible to be
contrarian, but with a lot of art, there isn't that much consensus. So it just
won't be clear which is the contrarian position and everybody will just argue
a lot, which is like my experience about movies.
Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So I don't see what the truthiness of something has to do
with contrarianism that's motivated by trying to do social signaling. It just
seems like, are you saying an unpopular thing or not?
So let me trace the route, how we got to truth. It was because I asked, you
said, you like pointing out inconsistency. I said, why is that interesting?
You said, because that's a way to figure out which of them is really right.
And what are the chances that all of our norms are right? Yeah, OK. And then
you said, well, maybe you don't care so much about truth, but about
consistency. You directly just care about consistency. And interestingly,
that's a theory of truth. There's a theory of truth called the coherence
theory of truth. That's just what truth is, right? And it occurred to me that
maybe the battle between the contrarians and the anti-contrarians could be a
kind of referred battle between coherentists about truth and correspondence
theory of truth, which is like there's a reality to which our claims
correspond and either correspond or doesn't, and it's not just about
consistency. Because say you're a correspondence theorist of truth, and say
you think, that, um, like, there's a fact of the matter, then it may be that
my... the contradictory thought that I have and the confused and incoherent
thought could actually be closer to the truth than if I just cut one of them
off and threw it in the garbage. Because it may be that I'm not yet now fully
able to work through those contradictions, but they're tracking something. And
if you come along to me and you're very rational and you're like, look, dump
this one or dump this one, then I feel threatened. Mm hmm. Because I'm like,
no, there's a truth out there. There's a reality that I want to grasp. And
right now, my best access to it is through this contradiction. Mm hmm.
Yeah, I think that this is a mistake a lot of naive rationalists make or
something. I kind of imagine is that you have just a pool of data or a massive
amount of pixels on a screen and you're trying to find the visual illusion
that makes the most meaning out of the most of the pixels. And you're trying
on different frames, different images kind of show up. And it's a mistake to
throw any of the pixels. I don't think you should discard a pixel because it's
not fitting the meaning making system that you have right now, but tracking
them, being like, this one is not a great fit. I'm going to notice that this
pixel is not a great fit and wait until I can find some sort of system that
incorporates it better.
I feel like we're exploring one theory of contrarianism, so we should just
highlight that as a theory and ask how many other theories we should compare
it to. So the theory we're focusing on at the moment is maybe that People who
are seen as contrarians are just more focused on consistency than other
people, and maybe a naive consistency where they are too eager to throw things
away on the basis of inconsistency. That theory of contrarians does predict
that they would end up with different points of view, and it predicts that
their views would be more wrong on average. But it's not the only available
theory of why people are contrarian, so I feel we should consider
Okay, give us an alternative.
Well, they could just care more about the topic. Like one theory of
contrarians is most people just have a point of view on the topic they just
accept and they just go on without thinking about it. And then there's some
people who just care about the topic more and then they just go into more
detail on that and they try to think harder about it. And then predictably,
they end up with different opinions than the people who don't think much about
it, that would explain contrarians having different opinions from ordinary
people, but it doesn't explain maybe how high the variation of the
contrarians' opinions is, which is why that was an issue before. If all the
contrarians ended up going the same direction, that would be much more
consistent with they just thought about it more carefully and ended up at the
truth than if the contrarians go all sorts of directions as they think about
the topic more, which is perhaps more consistent with they're just overly
focused on consistency.
It also isn't consistent. It wouldn't predict that contrarians are contrarians
about so many things, some of which they don't care about. That is, you would
want to look at, are the contrarians only contrarian about the thing they've
really invested into, or are they kind of contrarian all over the place? And
at least many contrarians are kind of contrarian all over the place, not just
about the things they've invested time into.
Well, for that, I would introduce this distinction between maybe a LARPing
contrarian and a thoughtful contrarian, that is the LARPing contrarian would
in fact do that because they're just trying to create the overall image of it.
I'm not sure that I actually agree with the thought that like why are the
contrarians all over the place? Like imagine you have a situation where you
want to go find some buried treasure and you release like a hundred people who
really care about finding the buried treasure and you tell them to go dig.
They probably would dig in a lot of places. And then you release a hundred
people who are pretending to care about finding buried treasure and are
following social norms really hard. They're probably going to, oh, I'll dig in
a single place. I don't know if I'm trying to make a good analogy as I go, but
you might expect significantly more agreement among people who are obeying
this for social pressure. But you might just see, we would expect inherently
greater greater diversity for people who actually care. So I'm not sure I
would perceive it as evidence.
But that is, the specific places the treasure hunters go should be, on
average, places more likely to have treasure. So on that axis, they'd have a
consistency. But along a bunch of other axes that don't correlate with that,
they would go a bunch of different directions. So then the question is, when
we're looking at contrarians go a bunch of different directions, are these
just directions in terms of overall style and attention that shouldn't be
expected to correlate much with truth here, or you know, when we get to the
dimension of are they right, say when we look at a historical database of
contrarians in the past, then we might find them that they eventually got to
the right answer first or sooner, even though in some naive sense they went
all sorts of directions to search.
Yeah. Okay. Yes.
I don't think I agree that being contrarian in a lot of different things means
that you're only LARPing, because it may be that, like, It may be that you,
you know, for instance, you care about something, you develop a weird view,
and then you develop, like, as Ayla was saying in the answer to my very first
question, there's a kind of pleasure to it or something. There's a kind of,
like, enjoyment of noticing that there's some different way of doing something
that you might, I mean, you could do that because you want other people to
notice that you've done it, but you could just do it because you like it.
Like, there might just be people who, like, actually enjoy being contrarian
as, you know, as part of their desire profile or something.
So I think I want to switch stance from being a distant observer of this
contrarian phenomena to embracing me being a contrarian in a certain way,
because I think this might go better if one of us tries to defend the point of
view of being a contrarian. But I would want to defend the particular kind of
contrarian whose stance is, you know, I inherit all these general views about
topics that I don't think much about, but if I go and think about a topic,
then I expect to come up with a different opinion from the general view after
I've thought about it a lot. unless I think about a topic a lot, I'm not going
to do that. So I'm going to hold myself to only having or expressing unusual
views when I've thought about something a fair bit. And then I'm allowed to do
that for more than one topic. I may even do it for a dozen or two dozen topics
over a lifetime. But, you know, my stance will be the reason why I'm entitled
to sort of embrace my new opinion is because it's the result of more detailed
thought about it. And that I do think there'll be a correlation with other
people who think about that same topic in similar detail, at least using
similar sorts of disciplinary tools, and then that's the kind of good
contrarian, and then there'll be others who just do it for the image of liking
to look contrarian, and they won't have the same sort of detailed correlations
here, and I'm not endorsing or supporting them.
Have I endorsed and support just a little bit the social contrarians?
Just for the style contrarians?
I don't know. I'm kind of pro having a general social balance of doing a thing
that's not conformist, but that's minor though. I overall agree with you.
I have a post exactly on this topic from many years ago where I say there are
people who just want to be different on many things and then they give the
other innovators a bad name. That is, there's the usual way of doing
something, and then there's different ways of doing things. And if the people
who are doing things for different reasons are just doing it because they're
random and just liking to be different, then those aren't going to be very
useful ways to do it. And in fact, it's better to avoid those people for many
reasons. So for example, a heuristic is on the road, any weird car, stay away
from. A car that's going slow, fast, wobbling, funny paint job, anything on
average, they're going to be correlated with someone who's just not
controlling that car as well. Which means that from your point of view, you're
better off staying away from that weird car. That's, but you know, some people
have weird cars for good reasons. But if there's enough of other people around
who just have weird cars because they're just randomly weird people, then in
fact, people are justified in staying away from those people. So like for say
hiring an employee, right? If you're looking for someone to do a regular job
reliably, and you've got some weird things about them, then if on average,
unreliability tends to correlate with weird things about a potential employee,
then you're better off not hiring weird people. And then the people who are
weird for good reasons, they get lumped in with those people unfairly, and we
hurt innovation in the world because the people who claim to be innovative are
mostly people who aren't actually thinking carefully about their innovations.
They're just being weird, and that hurts the cause of weirdness.
I mean, I don't necessarily disagree, right? I'm just saying that separately
from all of this, I like social balancing urges. And it feels like this kind
of comes out of a social balancing urge and that thing I support. If you're in
a community where people seem to be way too interested in doing the thing that
everybody else is doing, then I appreciate the energy of somebody who's very
just deliberately trying not to do that thing. A teenager's going goth. Right.
They're weird and everybody's like, oh, you're going through a phase. But I'm
glad that exists. I'm glad that urge just exists on the planet. Although I
agree that there are downsides. It's kind of a nitpick.
But if you think about an ordinary person who's not weird, say, and then they
see a weird person and they ask themselves, maybe those people know something
I don't. Maybe there's a signal there I should extract. Maybe I shouldn't just
reject them because they're weird. That's based on the idea that maybe those
people are choosing their weirdness out of some reason and thoughtfulness,
rather than just to be weird. The more I believe, no, they're just being weird
to be weird, the less I'm looking for a signal there, because it's not there,
the more justified I feel in just dismissing them, because they are doing it
for a good reason.
I feel like it's unreliable, though, to just being weird for the sake of being
weird. It's kind of like art. It's just like a novel sensation. Novel
sensations are inherently awesome.
What do you think, Agnes?
I guess I'm just wondering why the amazing innovators can't give themselves a
good name, like through all the great innovations that they're producing,
improving the lives of everybody. Because it seems to me that, you know, with
respect to other people, there are these two impulses, and I sort of get both
of them. And one of them is somehow some people find it reassuring when other
people do things the same way they do. And the other thing is, it's kind of
nice when people do things in different ways. You see, both of these impulses
sort of exist in us, and then they can both generate antipathy towards the
other. Like, you can end up with this antipathy towards, why are they doing it
differently? I'm somehow threatened by that. Or why is everybody doing
everything the same? I'm threatened by that, right? Yeah, I guess I'm not sure
where I come down on those two things, but it's not somehow obvious to me that
we have to decide that fight in favor of the conformist just to protect
innovation. Because as I see it, innovation should sell itself.
My story was that there's two kinds of innovation. There's thoughtful
innovation, where somebody says, here's a way to do something different for
this reason that's promising because I've thought it through. Yeah. And then
there's just imitative innovation, which just does something different in
order to gain the social credit for being innovative without actually thinking
carefully about whether it's a better thing.
Can you give an example of these two things?
I'm gonna give an example of hospitals, small versus large. It's one of my
favorite examples I've given in lectures over the years. On average, if you go
to a large or small hospital, you'll get about the same quality overall
treatment. But that's somewhat at odds with the following two facts. One is
large hospitals do everything that small hospitals do and more. They just have
more kinds of treatments they'll do for you. And the second is for any one
kind of treatment, Oh, whoever does it the most is better at it. So if you get
more gun, you would get gunshot. You want to go to the hospital and gets more
gunshots. If you have cancer, you want to go to the hospital has more cancer.
So this seems to be at odds with this fact that, so both of these things seem
to favor the larger hospital. They, they do more things and each thing they
do, they're better at. Nevertheless, on average, they're not better. So the
solution to this puzzle is that in fact, the new things that larger hospitals
do are on average worse. New things are, on average, worse than old things.
However, of course, most new things get thrown away, and a few new things
last, and innovation, improvement over time, comes from the few new things
that last, even though most new things are bad. So practical advice from this
is to get the best treatment, you should go to the large hospital and then
only let them do the treatments that small hospitals also do. Cause now you'll
get the best of both, but that would be practical advice in that situation.
But you can see that the moral of the story is, you know, people are going to
the big hospital in part because of their innovative new treatments. But the
problem is most of those innovative treatments are worse than the bad old
treatments. And that's a problem for the new things. What you want to do is be
able to sort out and distinguish the good new stuff from the bad new stuff. So
the harder it is to distinguish those things, the harder it is to innovate.
The whole innovation process is you try new things and then you distinguish
the good ones from the bad ones. you get rid of the bad ones, you keep the
good ones. That's the whole process. So we definitely want to prioritize and
celebrate distinguishing the good different stuff and the bad different stuff.
Sure, but you gotta do that. The process would be something like the testing
of the treatment or something. If somebody's wearing weird clothes to their
medical treatment, that's not gonna interfere with that. We have processes for
testing, which are the good and which are the bad innovations. And the proof's
gonna be in the pudding. Does the people actually survive more with this
treatment than with this other treatment? And that's gonna be what sells the
It would if it were true. Unfortunately, our world seems to keep bad
innovations for a remarkably long time. And so we could definitely do with
stronger sorting of those things.
Okay, but I just find it hard to believe that's because people wear weird
clothes to their medical treatments or sing songs while they're getting the
treatment or whatever weird things people do. That's not what's muddying this
process, is it?
But I would say that on the road, if you see that guy singing that song really
loud, that does make up a little different. And I'm going to stay a little
farther away that on average on the road, most any weirdness is going to be a
reason to stay away from some other vehicle. Um, that's not so much true in
the hospital. Maybe the weird clothes aren't a problem. Although the surgeon
with weird clothes might be a reason to be careful.
I feel like I asked for the example to try and distinguish between the two
examples you were giving, but then you gave me an analogy and then I forgot
what the original two examples I was trying to distinguish before, and so now
I feel lost.
Maybe I'll come back to you.
I think I remember. It was basically, Robin was saying that we want to be able
to distinguish innovation that's just for show or LARPing or whatever,
weirdness that's just for show from innovation. And so his example was very
roundabout because it wasn't an example of each. It was more an example of a
case where The need to distinguish which of the good innovations is very
salient, namely in a hospital. But of course, it didn't involve any cases of
people doing innovation just for, or weirdness just for show. I threw that in
with the people in the weird clothes to make the analogy closer to what we
were originally asking about. So the point is, When people are weird in the
innovative sense, then there's all kind of investment we want to put into
deciding which of those weirdnesses benefit us and which of them don't. And
then those of us who are just weirdos generally indiscriminately are like
muddying the waters and making the process of weeding out the good from the
bad weirdness. That is the innovation from the non-innovation harder to do.
So people should, in a sense, have a license to be weird? Like you should only
be... Yeah, yeah, yeah, right.
You should invest the time into studying the thing.
Well, hold yourself to a standard, yes.
How do you feel about teenage goths?
I mean, as long as it's clear they're just making a different style choice,
nobody's confused about them having some message that we should listen to. But
let's look at, say, UFO fans. Now, UFO fans tend to be weird in many ways,
right? They wear weird clothes and have weird styles and meet at weird places
and have weird ways of talking about things. And, you know, most traditional
serious academics use that to dismiss their claims and their world, right?
That is their weirdness counts against them. And it's because of this idea
that, you know, they're, they might just be doing it for the fun of being
weird. Uh, that's the interpretation offered of them and it kind of fits.
Wait, I don't, I feel like, I feel like weirdly like an idiot in this
conversation. I'm like, wait, I feel like, uh, like maybe there's some like
deep point that I'm missing, but I mean, people discard UFO people's opinions
because they're wrong. Like wrong. Like they're clearly like not thinking very
well. And so they don't think well in a lot of other different things.
I mean, as an academic, I can assure you that we academics often use pretty
shallow signals to judge things. We don't just judge people on the quality of
their arguments. We often use various, you know, as an example, very early on,
I, you know, sent somebody a drafting working paper and he came back and
talked to me. He said, look, you, you, you far out of this in two columns,
never do that. And it was single space, never do that. You know, he was just
walking through, you're going to, no one will ever take you seriously if you
format paper this way.
which seems so terrible. I get a lot of shit for like, I'm very weird and a
lot of the weirdness bleeds off onto my research. I like publish some findings
and people are like, we cannot trust this because it is weird in all of these
other ways. It's very frustrating. I can't imagine how terrible it would be if
you're just doing the formatting wrong.
Well, see, that's what Robin is suggesting, that you police yourself, and you
decide which are the kinds of weirdness that are research-relevant, and then
squash all the other kinds to make sure you're not giving people a confusing
I feel so against this. I feel, like, deeply, meaningfully, like, unjust, kind
of, against this.
I mean, I feel torn, but I feel like the trade-off is, I can make Vivid, and
it's real, and we should face it, and not pretend it isn't there.
Yeah, but I kind of feel like I want to change the norms, and in order to
change the norms, you have to put yourself on the chopping block a bit.
Say I have a two-columned paper. Say I really care about the two-column norm,
right? Two-column papers should be allowed against the one-column norm. Okay.
Well, my way to do that should be to make papers that are high quality in
other ways and then attach them to a two column format. If I make a bunch of
really crappy papers on a two column format, I'm reinforcing the norm. The
idea would be to be selective about your differences and then focus on making
sure you show that there's a way to make that thing different without lowering
the quality that people care about.
Yes, that seems right.
So that's about this story of like trying to have contrarians who are
contrarian because we think about things carefully and find a way to
distinguish those contrarians from the other contrarians who just do it to be
different. That's just like, you know, they're going to make the two column
papers and have all sorts of other random stuff that isn't going to impress
the audience because they're not trying to impress the audience and do it
right. They're just trying to have fun with a lot of variation in the format.
Right. We're making you look bad. But wait, let me shift the question slightly
to this. When you do something in a weird way, people often are disturbed by
that. And at some deep level, I'm not sure I understand why. Like in the car
example, if, I mean, if I just saw a car that had a weird color, I know I
would not be inclined to think that's probably a drunk driver or something. If
I saw the car weaving or whatever, I might, but it's not like everything about
the car is gonna make me draw those conclusions. It's gonna, there's gonna be
some, I'm gonna employ some kind of cognitive discipline there. So like, I'll
just give an example from my own life of something that people often, that
reliably people get upset about, is that I live with my husband and my
ex-husband. So we live in the same place. Now, people just find that very
weird, very disturbing. That somehow shouldn't happen. But, like, it
doesn't... For me, that's like the car being a different color. It's like it's
not, it doesn't interface in any way with their lives, and yet they still find
it disturbing or threatening or whatever. So why is it that differences that
we can pretty clearly tell are like the color of the car and not like the
weaving of the car, nonetheless elicit the response that the weaving of the
Well, first of all, just notice the general heuristics, much easier to
remember, to teach, and to implement. that stay away from all weird cars is
just very easy, robust, and reliable to use. And it does work on average. Now
you want to offer a subtler refinement of the heuristic where you say, stay
away from weird cars that are weird on the following features, but not the
other following features. But you haven't given me a criteria to distinguish
those that I could easily implement. You've just said that there is some
distinction. So until you could offer an easy to check and implement criteria
by which I could tell which cards were the ones to avoid, it's not actually a
Why? Like, in this particular case, it's like, what might be an indication of
drunkenness or, like, disorderly driving or something? And like, yeah, I would
think the color of the car wouldn't tend to be, but the movements of the car
Does it result in, like, meaningfully worse treatment towards you? That when
people learn that you have an ex living with you?
Oh, yeah. Interesting. There's a giant, like, social circle that cut me off.
What? Yeah. Yeah, no, people are really upset about this. So it really, it
really deeply disturbs them.
Do they think you're being like polyamorous or something like.
Independently, I am, but I think that that's like a separate issue that's also
I mean, it might be reasonable for them to expect this correlation. I mean,
it's not a crazy correlation to expect, is it?
Right, but I think even over and above that, it's just somehow in their heads,
it's just not supposed to happen. There's something very visceral. I mean,
this isn't the only thing, I just picked this as a vivid example, but where
you experience some difference as a threat to yourself, And maybe Robin's
right that the explanation is just we have a general rule. All differences are
threatening or something. That would seem like a crazy inefficiency.
You have to offer a better one to call that crazy inefficient. You have to
offer a way to distinguish the ones to be wherever and the ones not to be. And
that's seems pretty hard.
I still feel like what hung up on this example, though, I'm like, I can't get
past it. I'm like, I'm very surprised. This is not within my models of how
people behaved. Did they say why they cut you off?
No. But I think that part of it is people who used to invite us over to dinner
stopped inviting us over because they kind of didn't know who to invite over.
Oh. It somehow became awkward to socialize with us. um and the problem is just
like it's not that people would never speak to me again or something it's just
that i was sort of cut out of a certain social circle um which was not a super
traumatic for me so i'm just gonna admit um uh but you know this is just it
got rehashed recently because it got like you know, reopened. This has been
going on for a decade, but it got reopened for the public eye. And then it was
like a return of this reaction to something that's just basically atypical.
The motivation of this being like a lack of a social script feels a little
different to me than like stay away from the car. Like, like, it's just
awkward. Like, how do you how do you go up to that person at a party? I don't
know. And it doesn't feel like it's I don't know, maybe social script is is
part of it. Like, yeah, I think we told how to interact with this.
I think that that's right. So I think that maybe it's a little bit different
from the car. So maybe part of the explanation here is that each of us has a
job of making ourselves legible to other people, right? So that they can
interpret us and we give them signals to teach them how to interact with us.
And then the weirder we are, the more confusing those signals are. And so they
don't know how to interact with us. And so maybe actually we're like selecting
for people who are super socially skilled and who are good at interacting with
people on the basis of ambiguous signals or whatever. And then only those
people remain, not because they're the most tolerant, but just because they're
the most talented.
In academia, in the job market, I believe Agnes will confirm this, there's
just a habit in many disciplines, probably hers as well, definitely was in
economics, where when they're looking at new job candidates, these are people
who just finished their PhD, say, and trying for an assistant professor job, a
way they describe these candidates as promising is that they can walk the walk
and talk the talk. That is, can they just do the style? Do they have the
proper mannerisms and vocabulary and pacing and level of detail? They're just
supposed to imitate a certain prototypical version of that profession. And the
ones who have done that more successfully are just considered better
candidates. And they're not being very discriminating about which of these
features are closer that matter more for walk the walk. They're not saying
this, who cares about anything? Just did they have a better argument? They're
looking at all the different features that these people have as clues to have
they assimilated our styles and are they a good candidate to be one of us? So
you either say they're just doing it wrong or we have to understand why
they're doing it and credit them for some reasonable inference they're making.
Yeah, I mean, I like the social script frame. It feels pretty intuitive for
me. And I mean, so you have to like offer them like a different script by
which to interpret what you're doing. It's like branding.
Right. So maybe maybe conformity is just the cheapest form of branding, like
it's the easiest, most reflexive, least work kind of branding you can do.
But let's make it more complicated. In some arenas, part of your brand is
being the contrarian. So, I mean, that's for all three of us, actually, to
varying degrees. Part of our brand, our distinctive value comes from our being
presented as certain kinds of contrarian. But their general disadvantages of
being weird are still there for us. So we have to do the subtle thing of being
weird in the right ways. with close enough to the right weirdness script. So
there's a sort of weirdness script for artists and intellectuals and other
sorts of people where that's the kind of script we're supposed to fit. And we
need to be weird in some ways to fit that script, but it's dangerous to be
weird in too many other ways.
Yes. So do you think, Ayla, that your understanding of yourself as a, that
you, that you've like, I don't know, created like a brand of a kind of
contrarian that you are where at least some of those practices or modes of
being wouldn't be there if they were a part of the brand to make you legible
to others. I don't know.
There's like some like feedback training thing that happens very subtly over
many years. And I don't know what I would be like without that feedback
training. I'm not deliberately being like, I'm going to try a weird thing so
people will like me. It's just like I put out a whole bunch of data about me
and then people react really strongly to some and I get positive reactions to
others. I think some part of my brain learned the kind of self that works
really well in conjunction with an audience and then sort of leans into this
Still, I wanna ask you about a post that you wrote. It was like, I don't know,
a month or two now. I think I have a tab open. Yeah, How I Learned to Stop
Worrying and Love the Internet Hate, which was very aspirational for me,
because I'm like, maybe I can grow up and become you and be okay with internet
hate. But what was interesting to me about that is that you know, you say
that, like, at some point you were able to detach in a certain way and you
connected that up with, like, were you accepting that you're a symbol, right?
And you said, like, you know, it connected up with when you were at vibe camp,
you were understanding yourself as a symbol. Yeah. And so I wonder how that
relates to this feedback process that you just described. Is it that you
arrested that process? Like, is it like, this is it. I've become symbol Ayla.
And like, now I'm going to be a little bit immune to further input or
something like that. Like up until that point, you were taking input in and
then you stopped.
I don't know. It's still new, so I'm still learning what it means, really, to
accept the being a symbol thing. I think it's a pervasive change. Yesterday, I
was on a stream and then I went and I read some internet hate about me and
then I was sad, but it was only sad for a little bit and it didn't hit me very
deeply. That's a good sign, but I don't know exactly how it changes my
perception. I still want to be liked. I think that's quite a universal thing,
and it's always going to be an incentive there for me. I would like to do
things that reduce the amount of internet hate that I get, but I think the
change is mostly just I'm no longer viewing internet hate as some sort of deep
violation. It's sort of inevitable. People are going to hate you because they
get to reinforce their identity against you. It doesn't matter what your
identity is. It can be used to reinforce, so you're always vulnerable in that
So we know how story characters differ from real people, and it seems like
celebrity characters are more like story characters than they are like real
people in that way. And so we can use that to understand the kind of pressures
that are being put out. The world's trying to make us into celebrity
characters or story characters compared to real people. And if we can identify
that bias, then we can ask, how much do we want to resist it? So it seems
like, for example, it's going to make us more extreme. Story characters and
celebrity characters are just more extreme in their stances. They're more
simplified. They're less subtle. They're less context dependent. And
especially for my concept of the proper sort of contrarian, I want to resist
that idea. That is, if the stereotype of me is just, I just pick a weird thing
in order to be weird, I want to say, no, no, I'm being selective. Most topics
I'm not even going to have an opinion on. I'm only going to have some I've
even investigated, and then I'm usually going to pick a relatively ordinary
opinion. It's only when I happen to come to an unusual opinion that I'll tell
you about it, and then I'm trying to be very selective, but that's a
complicated character, and maybe the world just isn't going to hear that
Yeah. I've had a lot of very mixed feelings about this, but there's one kind
of perspective where Uh, like the kind of people who are not going to be
nuanced to the way that they view you, like aren't, aren't worth it. I mean,
this sounds like kind of dumb, but like they're not, they shouldn't, they
shouldn't have like any sort of like impact on the way that you're trying to
organize your character.
Agnes and I, with her husband Arnold, did an episode recently where we talked
about the interpretation of ancient celebrities like Aristotle or something.
And we noticed that this concept that, in fact, most of the influence of
Aristotle in the world, say, is the caricature of Aristotle, not the actual
Aristotle. And that if you're very successful, that's kind of what you have to
hope for. And then in that sense, you don't have much hope of this subtle
version of you lasting and having influence. The world is going to remember
You know, I want to amend that result from our conversation, because I think
that. Oh. Hold on. Something bad, just can you guys still hear me?
Yeah. I mean, just fine.
Oh, you see me too? Okay. Yeah. Oh, okay. My computer just did a very weird
thing. All right. You're back now. If you read an introductory textbook in
biology, critical theory, logic, Aristotle's name will often be in the first
sentence. And you might say, look, his main influence was creating every
branch of knowledge that currently exists. But if you wanna know the name of
Aristotle and the way it gets called to mind, that's the caricature, right? So
in a way, the question, you could separate out your influence into the causal
effects of your existence and the memory of you. And it may be that the memory
is gonna be the caricature, but the causal effects could be massive and they
may have little to do with the caricature and a lot to do with what you
That's hard. I don't like the fact that they're different.
Although the causal effects are mostly mediated early in time and then pass
off to other people. So there's this issue, why ever read an old writer?
Presumably if many other people read the old writer, then they've assimilated
whatever insights the old writer had and those have been assimilated into all
the writing since then. So what would be the point of reading an old writer?
And then the contrary story as well, there's something distinctive about this
writing style that you'll get out of reading the old writer that other people
couldn't summarize in what they've said. And you might think, well, if I can't
express it and nobody else could before, I won't be able to, so what's the
point? But again, you would... you might expect that the sort of, you know,
effects like Aristotle founding biology, then that was the effect of that has
passed through all the biologists since then. We don't need to remember or
mention Aristotle for those things. When we mention his name, it'll be because
of this caricature, this supposedly thing that you can't get through the other
summaries that still last from that person, whatever that is, if there is
I want to go back to the thing Ayla said about, you know, maybe the people who
aren't going to be nuanced shouldn't influence how you think about yourself or
your plans for yourself. because like so like one of the kind of worries that
I had and that occurred to me when I was reading that blog post is that it
like on some level you want to say people saying mean things about you is bad
like you know the way that you put it of like Hey, I'm a person. You know, you
shouldn't be treating me this way. I often have had that like that thought in
like those words. And I'm like, that's a there's something right about that
thought that I don't want to lose. Like where there's a kind of toughness that
is almost like it almost feels to me like it's first of all insensitivity and
second of all, like a form of revenge. well, you're not even worth bothering
with. Like, you're not important enough for me to even care what you think or
something. But actually, I obviously really do because I'm making this whole
speech about it. And so how does one, I don't know, turn down the volume
without like a kind of counter formation in oneself of the defense against
I think I view this as negative when it is kind of ingrained or stable in a
way. One example is once I had a guy come up to me at a party and he was
fangirling really hard and he was like, I was so excited, I'll do whatever you
want. He was basically self-prostrating really intensely and I felt really
sadistic about it. It was very early on, I was shocked by my reaction. Like,
with this person being like, just step on me, highness. He wasn't literally
saying that, but that was the vibe. I found myself actually wanting to hurt
him, which is shocking because typically I'm very nice and compassionate to
people. And I'm like, wow, where did this come from? And I think the frame I
used to play, he was requesting it. He was putting himself into this social
script where the way that I fulfilled the social script is by being cruel. in
some way. And so when these people are being mean to me online, and I'm kind
of saying this a little more artistically, I don't literally mean it, but
there's a way where it feels like they are requesting that I dehumanize them.
They're putting me in a social strife where the only way for me to properly
fulfill the balance to this reaction is to be like, fuck you. What else the
fuck are you? That's just the way that this narrative is supposed to go. And
it doesn't mean that I'm fucking them specifically. It's just like, sure.
Okay. I'm going to inhabit this role in your story. And maybe the story will
change one day. Maybe you are going to have a different perspective. Then
that's fine. But it's not about you. It's about the story. And that feels a
lot more flexible and healthy for me.
But like the thing that happened with you and that it's fascinating, I mean,
and it makes actually now that you've sort of explained it, it makes sense to
me that it would incite that, in effect, the corresponding response in you.
But one wouldn't exactly want to go through life constantly putting oneself in
that position, right? And so there's this question, if you're getting all
these responses and then you're having this, you're like, well, they asked me
to dehumanize them, so I did. And then you're sort of systematically doing
that. That just seems really bad.
Yeah. Like, yeah, I don't know. I don't, like, I'm not really sure how to
think about it. I don't know how to do it better. But, but also, like, it
feels healthier to me, like I said, when it's about the story and it's not
about them. Like, like, if you're in a world where every, like, if you're on
the opposite end of this, say, like, everybody's treating you like shit. And,
like, the way to fulfill this narrative is to grovel at their boot. Like, kind
of the reverse. Probably, like, It's probably really exhausting to try and
fight that narrative at any step. The ideal is to get out of that. But I don't
know. In my ideal, I just don't expose myself to those people.
And I offer another distinction of two different kinds of contrarians. Because
it occurs to me that, so the kind of contrarian you are, at least from a
distance, is there's this range of opinions on this topic, everybody cares
about sex, and you're taking one of the well-known positions and then you are
representing that position. So there's a sense of which that's contrary to
maybe the usual positions, but it's not especially original in the sense that
lots of people know about that position, lots of people could represent that
position. So some people are selected as celebrities to represent various
positions on various axes that many people have opinions on.
Just to be clear, what position am I representing here?
Well, the position that you are most known for would be, say, in favor of
polyamory or a broad, accepting, pleasure-oriented analysis of which choices
to make in the area or something. Okay. That would be my rough description,
but that's a position that many people are aware of and can intuit that it
would make sense as a position, and then you represent it, and then you're a
celebrity representing that position. Whereas, say, someone like Wegner, of
the guy who introduced Continental Drift, say, he was a contrarian, but he
wasn't a celebrity, you know, coming on to a new position that many people
already knew about that needed somebody to represent. He was like inventing a
whole new point of view that people weren't even aware of, or even Einstein at
the beginning. He was, he's a contrarian initially, but not because he
represented some views that many people argued over and that there was already
a preexisting stance, like he invented a whole new position. And it seems to
be like many people trying to be that, there's many people who tried it and
failed to be an Einstein or a Wegner. But that's a kind of contrary many
people aspire to, but that's different than being a celebrity who represents a
widely held point of view. That's still a minority, but a widely known and
anticipated and understood point of view.
So you say there's like a spectrum of how minority your opinion is, and
there's some people that have like a- How established it is.
It could be a minority, but still very well known and established, and now you
represent it, but you're not inventing it or changing it necessarily.
And so- I think I do also argue for a lot of concepts that are pretty out
there. I would say don't have any established thing, but people don't really
Right, so there's a conflict. That's hard.
Sorry, can you give us an example?
I'm a little afraid. How frequently does this get?
Wait, okay. We're not that popular. Not many people. Though everyone at Vibe
Jam listens to us. That's our clientele. But otherwise, I think we're very
I think I have very unusual opinions about trauma. I think trauma is almost
entirely social. It's including childhood sexual experiences. And so I know
some people do share that, but I would consider it to be a much rarer. People
don't have like, oh, that's the poly people. They don't have the thing for
what I'm saying. I was molested and it was fine. People don't have a concept
It might well be, and I would even encourage you, that is, given a position as
being a celebrity representing an established position, you could then make
bids to become this other kind of contrarian where you invent novel positions
and defend them. And it might be that if you got enough people to accept
those, then they would now see you as that different kind of person that might
even have a better role for you in the world. And I would encourage you to go
for it. But I just wanted to distinguish the two.
It turned out this episode was Robin proselytizing to us about his brand of
conferrianism and how we should join it. You need a name for it. It's true,
Robin, you need a name.
So there's this name that people have put next to memes for me called
meta-contrarian. We could ask what we think of the concept. Is it coherent?
Does it mean anything interesting? So the idea is that some people are just
contrarians and other people are like, they look a lot like a contrarian, but
then they end up endorsing the usual point of view, but from an unusual
perspective. and then they are, you know, contrarians at a meta-level. That
is, they're contrary to what you'd expect. That is, they're endorsing many,
you know, and kind of interesting, you know, is there a meta-metacontrarian? I
mean, is this coherent?
In fact, that distinction cuts across the one you're interested in, because I
could be a meta-contrarian about fashion and dress like everybody else, but
from a contrarian, my whole reasoning about it is backwards, and then I'd be a
meta-contrarian. But I might not have invested any thought into it, and I
might not fall under your strict criteria of the work I need to do in order to
be allowed to be weird on your system. I feel like you need a name that
conveys that. Don't be weird unless you've worked for it. Like a grouchy
contrarian? Maybe. Strict. Or maybe strict. Maybe you're just a strict. Strict
So I'm awesome to see- Contrarian.
Wait, can you say that again? I didn't hear what you said, Ayla. No fun. Yeah,
exactly. No fun. Yeah, fun-free contrarianism. That's what I think you should
call it, Robin.
Yeah, I think we'll search for another name. But I've often distinguished
between being contrarian about methods versus topic or conclusions. So many
people in the academic world, they're contrarian on methods. They want to
have, you know, they don't believe in the usual axioms or the usual approach.
They just want to have a whole different approach. And then others of us, like
myself, are more happy to use all the usual methods, but we just want to apply
them to unusual questions. where other people haven't actually done so much.
And that seems to be safer from the point of view of being accurate or not
being wrong. Uh, when, when you're having a country in conclusion, like
everybody thinks a, and you're going to think not a, I mean, you might be
right, but there's a big chance you're going to be wrong. And if you're doing
that because you have contrary methods, I mean, methods are probably also
wrong, but I'm just taking the usual methods and applying to a subject. Nobody
else is even looking at. seems like I've got a good chance that my first cut
analysis will be right. It'll be contrary because I'm speaking about something
nobody speaks about, but I'm still quite likely to be accurate.
Would you consider rationality to be a contrary method?
Well, it depends on what people mean by rationality. So, you know, certainly
in the concept of rationality, let's have arguments and discuss things. You
know, that's a pretty ancient thing. So in some sense, rationalists... Talk
about the new thing. Well, that's the question. What is the new thing? That
is, there's this image that there is a new thing.
Like the sequences, like Sarcoda, like the Rationality community.
And the question is, do they have a different method? Is there a different
method there? Or is this just a rebranding of the old method except it's new
because we're young and sexy and, you know, in the news?
That seems to be non-standard. It seems to be kind of unpopular.
But then the question is, what is it about their analysis that's different
from the usual sorts of, you know, giving arguments and analysis and
reasoning? And I might pitch it the way I just said, rationalists actually
take the usual rationality stuff that everybody else already accepts, and they
apply it to other things that people don't usually apply it to. And that's, to
me, the magic is to just apply it to new stuff.
Yeah, I think my question was just calibration for like what you were thinking
of when you said a novel method.
We should stop because we're over an hour.
Thank you for joining us.
Thanks for having me, guys.