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.