This is an interesting question. I definitely agree that being a contrarian and being a conformist can both be forms of bias. However, I would add one example which suggests that conformity can in some cases be a positive instinct.

I have never studied general relativity in depth. My belief that "general relativity is right" is based on the heuristics, "most scientists believe in general relativity," and "things that most scientists believe are usually right." In part I think it's also based on the fact that I know that evidence and arguments are available which everybody claims to be very strong.

To show that most of my belief in general relativity comes from popularity-based heuristics, consider the following scenario. Somebody proposes a unified field theory (UFT-1). They claim that evidence and arguments are available which would would convince me that the theory is right. Furthermore, they are the only person who believes in UFT-1. To eliminate further confounding variables, let us suppose that UFT-1 has existed for 35 years and has been examined in detail by 200 qualified physicists.

The main difference between general relativity and UFT-1, from my perspective, having never examined the arguments for either, is that most scientists believe in general relativity, and most scientists do not believe in UFT-1. Yet, I believe that general relativity is almost definitely right, I believe that UFT-1 is almost definitely wrong, and I believe that these are rational judgments.

Furthermore, these rational judgments are based almost entirely on a popularity-based heuristic: that is, the heuristic that popular beliefs are more likely to be true. To review, from the information I have, the main difference between general relativity and UFT-1 is that a lot of people believe in general relativity, and few people believe in UFT-1. Otherwise they are quite similar: both of them have been around for a while, both of them have received significant exposure, and both of them claim to have sound arguments in their favor. (The differences between these arguments cannot enter into my evaluation of the two theories, because I have not examined the arguments for either.)

This example suggests that popularity-based heuristics, telling us that popular beliefs are more likely to be true, rightly have a place in rational people's judgments.

This makes sense. The amount of thinking that the human race as a whole has done vastly exceeds the amount of thinking that I will ever do. It would make sense for me to rely on this vast repository of intelligence in choosing my own beliefs. This is related to the idea of "the wisdom of crowds."

On the other hand, popularity-based heuristics often lead us to the wrong answer. Religion is an obvious example. So we have to be careful in applying them. I'm not sure what general principles would result in our popularity-based heuristics excluding religious beliefs, but including popular scientific theories which we have not evaluated for ourselves. What do you guys think?

I'm not sure what general principles would result in our popularity-based heuristics excluding religious beliefs, but including popular scientific theories which we have not evaluated for ourselves. What do you guys think?

The strength of others' beliefs as evidence depends on what you know about how they arrived at those beliefs. If you know that scientists have a general process for establishing accepted truths which involves repeated testing with attempts to falsify their hypotheses and find alternative explanations, then you can take established con... (read more)

Reasons for being rational

by Swimmer963 2 min read1st Jul 2011183 comments


When I found Less Wrong and started reading, when I made my first post, when I went to my first meetup….

It was a little like coming home.

And mostly it wasn’t. Mostly I felt a lot more out of place than I have in, say, church youth groups. It was hard to pinpoint the difference, but as far as I can tell, it comes down to this: a significant proportion of the LW posters are contrarians in some sense. And I’m a conformist, even if I would prefer not to be, even if that’s a part of my personality that I’m working hard to change. I’m much more comfortable as a follower than as a leader. I like pre-existing tradition, the reassuring structure of it. I like situations that allow me to be helpful and generous and hardworking, so that I can feel like a good person. Emotionally, I don’t like disagreeing with others, and the last thing I have to work hard to do is tolerate others' tolerance.

And, as evidenced by the fact that I attend church youth groups, I don’t have the strong allergy that many of the community seem to have against religion. This is possibly because I have easily triggered mystical experiences when, for example, I sing in a group, especially when we are singing traditional ‘sacred’ music. In a previous century, I would probably have been an extremely happy nun.

Someone once expressed surprise that I was able to become a rationalist in spite of this neurological quirk. I’ve asked myself this a few times. My answer is that I don’t think I deserve the credit. If anything, I ended up on the circuitous path towards reading LessWrong because I love science, and I love science because, as a child, reading about something as beautiful as general relativity gave me the same kind of euphoric experience as singing about Jesus does now. My inability to actual believe in any religion comes from a time before I was making my own decisions about that kind of thing. 

I was raised by atheist parents, not anti-theist so much as indifferent. We attended a Unitarian Universalist church for a while, which meant I was learning about Jesus and Buddha and Native American spirituality all mixed together, all the memes watered down to the point that they lost their power. I was fourteen when I really encountered Christianity, still in the mild form of the Anglican Church of Canada. I was eighteen when I first encountered the ‘Jesus myth’ in its full, meme-honed-to-maximum-virulence form, and the story arc captivated me for a full six months. I still cry during every Good Friday service. But I must have missed some critical threshold, because I can’t actually believe in that story. I’m not even sure what it would mean to believe in a story. What does that feel like?

I was raised by scientists. My father did his PhD in physical chemistry, my mother in plant biology. I grew up reading SF and pop science, and occasionally my mother or my father’s old textbooks. I remember my mother’s awe at the beautiful electron-microscope images in my high school textbooks, and how she sat patiently while I fumblingly talked about quantum mechanics, having read the entire tiny physics section of our high school library. My parents responded to my interest in science with pride and enthusiasm, and to my interest in religion with indulgent condescension. That was my structure, my tradition. And yes, that has everything to do with why I call myself an atheist. I wouldn’t have had the willpower to disagree with my parents in the long run.

Ultimately, I have an awfully long way to go if I want to be rational, as opposed to being someone who’s just interested in reading about math and science. Way too much of my motivation for ‘having true beliefs’ breaks down to ‘maybe then they’ll like me.’ This is one of the annoying things about my personality, just as annoying as my sensitivity to religious memes and my inability to say no to anyone. Luckily, my personality also comes with the ability to get along with just about anyone, and in a forum of mature adults, no one is going to make fun of me because I’m wearing tie-dye overalls. No one here has yet made fun of me for my interest in religion, even though I expect most people disagree with it.

And there’s one last conclusion I can draw, albeit from a sample size of one. Not everyone can be a contrarian rationalist. Not everyone can rebel against their parents’ religion. Not everyone can disagree with their friends and family and not feel guilty. But everyone can be rational if they are raised that way.