Lonely Dissent

Asch’s con­for­mity ex­per­i­ment showed that the pres­ence of a sin­gle dis­sen­ter tremen­dously re­duced the in­ci­dence of “con­form­ing” wrong an­swers. In­di­vi­d­u­al­ism is easy, ex­per­i­ment shows, when you have com­pany in your defi­ance. Every other sub­ject in the room, ex­cept one, says that black is white. You be­come the sec­ond per­son to say that black is black. And it feels glo­ri­ous: the two of you, lonely and defi­ant rebels, against the world!1

But you can only join the re­bel­lion af­ter some­one, some­where, be­comes the first to rebel. Some­one has to say that black is black af­ter hear­ing ev­ery­one else, one af­ter the other, say that black is white. And that—ex­per­i­ment shows—is a lot harder.

Lonely dis­sent doesn’t feel like go­ing to school dressed in black. It feels like go­ing to school wear­ing a clown suit.

That’s the differ­ence be­tween join­ing the re­bel­lion and leav­ing the pack.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s fak­e­ness—you may have no­ticed this. Well, lonely dis­sent has got to be one of the most com­monly, most os­ten­ta­tiously faked char­ac­ter­is­tics around. Every­one wants to be an icon­o­clast.

I don’t mean to de­grade the act of join­ing a re­bel­lion. There are re­bel­lions worth join­ing. It does take courage to brave the dis­ap­proval of your peer group, or per­haps even worse, their shrugs. Need­less to say, go­ing to a rock con­cert is not re­bel­lion. But, for ex­am­ple, veg­e­tar­i­anism is. I’m not a veg­e­tar­ian my­self, but I re­spect peo­ple who are, be­cause I ex­pect it takes a no­tice­able amount of quiet courage to tell peo­ple that ham­burg­ers won’t work for din­ner.2

Still, if you tell peo­ple that you’re a veg­e­tar­ian, they’ll think they un­der­stand your mo­tives (even if they don’t). They may dis­agree. They may be offended if you man­age to an­nounce it proudly enough, or for that mat­ter, they may be offended just be­cause they’re eas­ily offended. But they know how to re­late to you.

When some­one wears black to school, the teach­ers and the other chil­dren un­der­stand the role thereby be­ing as­sumed in their so­ciety. It’s Out­side the Sys­tem—in a very stan­dard way that ev­ery­one rec­og­nizes and un­der­stands. Not, y’know, ac­tu­ally out­side the sys­tem. It’s a Challenge to Stan­dard Think­ing, of a stan­dard sort, so that peo­ple in­dig­nantly say, “I can’t un­der­stand why you—” but don’t have to ac­tu­ally think any thoughts they had not thought be­fore. As the say­ing goes, “Has any of the ‘sub­ver­sive liter­a­ture’ you’ve read caused you to mod­ify any of your poli­ti­cal views?”

What takes real courage is brav­ing the out­right in­com­pre­hen­sion of the peo­ple around you, when you do some­thing that isn’t Stan­dard Re­bel­lion #37, some­thing for which they lack a ready-made script. They don’t hate you for a rebel. They just think you’re, like, weird, and turn away. This prospect gen­er­ates a much deeper fear. It’s the differ­ence be­tween ex­plain­ing veg­e­tar­i­anism and ex­plain­ing cry­on­ics. There are other cry­on­i­cists in the world, some­where, but they aren’t there next to you. You have to ex­plain it, alone, to peo­ple who just think it’s weird. Not for­bid­den, but out­side bounds that peo­ple don’t even think about. You’re go­ing to get your head frozen? You think that’s go­ing to stop you from dy­ing? What do you mean, brain in­for­ma­tion? Huh? What? Are you crazy?

I’m tempted to es­say a post facto ex­pla­na­tion in evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy: You could get to­gether with a small group of friends and walk away from your hunter-gath­erer band, but hav­ing to go it alone in the forests was prob­a­bly a death sen­tence—at least re­pro­duc­tively. We don’t rea­son this out ex­plic­itly, but that is not the na­ture of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy. Join­ing a re­bel­lion that ev­ery­one knows about is scary, but nowhere near as scary as do­ing some­thing re­ally differ­ently—some­thing that in an­ces­tral times might have con­cluded, not with the band split­ting, but with you be­ing driven out alone.

As the case of cry­on­ics tes­tifies, the fear of think­ing re­ally differ­ent is stronger than the fear of death. Hunter-gath­er­ers had to be ready to face death on a rou­tine ba­sis—hunt­ing large mam­mals, or just walk­ing around in a world that con­tained preda­tors. They needed that courage in or­der to live. Courage to defy the tribe’s stan­dard ways of think­ing, to en­ter­tain thoughts that seem truly weird—well, that prob­a­bly didn’t serve its bear­ers as well. We don’t rea­son this out ex­plic­itly; that’s not how evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy works. We hu­man be­ings are just built in such fash­ion that many more of us go sky­div­ing than sign up for cry­on­ics.

And that’s not even the high­est courage. There’s more than one cry­on­i­cist in the world. Only Robert Et­tinger had to say it first.

To be a sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion­ary, you’ve got to be the first per­son to con­tra­dict what ev­ery­one else you know is think­ing. This is not the only route to sci­en­tific great­ness; it is rare even among the great. No one can be­come a sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion­ary by try­ing to imi­tate rev­olu­tion­ar­i­ness. You can only get there by pur­su­ing the cor­rect an­swer in all things, whether the cor­rect an­swer is rev­olu­tion­ary or not. But if, in the due course of time—if, hav­ing ab­sorbed all the power and wis­dom of the knowl­edge that has already ac­cu­mu­lated—if, af­ter all that and a dose of sheer luck, you find your pur­suit of mere cor­rect­ness tak­ing you into new ter­ri­tory . . . then you have an op­por­tu­nity for your courage to fail.

This is the true courage of lonely dis­sent, which ev­ery damn rock band out there tries to fake.

Of course, not ev­ery­thing that takes courage is a good idea. It would take courage to walk off a cliff, but then you would just go splat.

The fear of lonely dis­sent is a hin­drance to good ideas, but not ev­ery dis­sent­ing idea is good.3 Most of the difficulty in hav­ing a new true sci­en­tific thought is in the “true” part.

It re­ally isn’t nec­es­sary to be differ­ent for the sake of be­ing differ­ent. If you do things differ­ently only when you see an over­whelm­ingly good rea­son, you will have more than enough trou­ble to last you the rest of your life.

There are a few gen­uine packs of icon­o­clasts around. The Church of the SubGe­nius, for ex­am­ple, seems to gen­uinely aim at con­fus­ing the mun­danes, not merely offend­ing them. And there are is­lands of gen­uine tol­er­ance in the world, such as sci­ence fic­tion con­ven­tions. There are cer­tain peo­ple who have no fear of de­part­ing the pack. Many fewer such peo­ple re­ally ex­ist, than imag­ine them­selves rebels; but they do ex­ist. And yet sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion­ar­ies are tremen­dously rarer. Pon­der that.

Now me, you know, I re­ally am an icon­o­clast. Every­one thinks they are, but with me it’s true, you see. I would to­tally have worn a clown suit to school. My se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tions were with books, not with other chil­dren.

But if you think you would to­tally wear that clown suit, then don’t be too proud of that ei­ther! It just means that you need to make an effort in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to avoid dis­sent­ing too eas­ily. That’s what I have to do, to cor­rect for my own na­ture. Other peo­ple do have rea­sons for think­ing what they do, and ig­nor­ing that com­pletely is as bad as be­ing afraid to con­tra­dict them. You wouldn’t want to end up as a free thinker. It’s not a virtue, you see—just a bias ei­ther way.

1Fol­lowup in­ter­views showed that sub­jects in the one-dis­sen­ter con­di­tion ex­pressed strong feel­ings of ca­ma­raderie with the dis­sen­ter—though, of course, they didn’t think the pres­ence of the dis­sen­ter had in­fluenced their own non­con­for­mity.

2Albeit that in the Bay Area, peo­ple ask as a mat­ter of rou­tine.

3See Robin Han­son, “Against Free Thinkers,” Over­com­ing Bias (blog), 2007, http://​​www.over­com­ing-bias.com/​​2007/​​06/​​against_free_th.html.