1 min read22nd Oct 2019160 comments


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I have no particular interest in sharing any of my own, but there does seem to be a bad dynamic going on here that is worth pointing out.

Some people are downvoting the comments that they find abhorrent. This would normally be fine, but in this case it punishes people for correctly following instructions.

I've done what I can to remedy this by giving a strong upvote to the responses with low scores, but LessWrong needs to have a way to deal with this in future so the platform doesn't disincentivize the very behaviours it wants to encourage.

Following instructions doesn't really ring as a bell as a site goal. The setting of the question seems fair but the ill committed in ignoring the context is different from disobeyance.

Humans are incredible un-secure systems, so compelling arguments can be made for almost any position that anyone takes seriously. Political, identity, and commercialized issues are where you'll find the most pre-existing examples, simply because that's where people have incentives (psychological or tangible) to make arguments whether or not a position is true.

I guess you're asking for examples that we (presumed intellectuals) find most compelling, but note that there's a serious selection effect going on here, because now you're not selecting merely contrarian ideas, you're selecting contrarian ideas and arguments that are pre-filtered for appeal to the sort of person you're interested in researching. You'll get a very different set of ideas and arguments here than if you ask alternative medicine practitioners what arguments they find compelling. And if you use these different sets of arguments in a study, I predict you'll find they convince quite different sets of people.

To give a really on the nose example, consider the contrarian position "I have the power to make a rubber band colder than the surrounding room just by pulling on ... (read more)

Standard schooling practices constitute child abuse for an appreciable fraction of children without resorting to an outlandish definition of abuse.

Euthenasia should be a universal right.

Euthanasia should be a universal right.

This doesn't sound non-normative at all?

I can tell you that I at least found it abhorrent! :P
1paul ince4y
It was just legalised in Western Australia. The second Australian state to do so.

I am currently conducting research on the seductive appeal of contrarian positions, particularly among intellectuals.

[Emphasis mine]

I just want to note that the bolded phrasing is really quite tendentious. I hope you’re not actually taking the perspective on contrarian positions that this sentence implies… if you are, then you’re starting from a severely biased perspective, which can hardly bode well for the validity of your research.

Point taken. I've edited the main body to limit editorializing. I have a hypothesis, and that hypothesis is rooted in survey data suggesting highly educated people are more likely to entertain beliefs that are inconsistent with majority opinion. I’m not concerned about the truth value of these contrarian positions, just why certain arguments in support of them appear appealing to certain kinds of people (and if that’s experimentally testable). To be clear: this study is about testing different argumentative techniques on different kinds of positions (conventional vs contrarian). It's not about the overarching reasons why someone who already subscribes to a contrarian position might have been persuaded by it in the first place.

I’m not concerned about the truth value of these contrarian positions, just why they appear appealing to certain kinds of people (and if that’s experimentally testable).

This seems a very odd way of approaching the question. Surely the truth value of any given position has something to do with how appealing it is?

At the very least, you’ve got to examine—even if only to rule out!—the obvious explanation: that more highly educated people are better at discerning truth, and that “contrarian” positions appeal to such people to the extent that they are more correct than the “mainstream” views in each case. How can you hope to have any kind of a sensible answer to your question if you ignore the issue of the truth of any given position?

EDIT: And since we’re on the topic—doesn’t it seem likely that a position is more likely to have “compelling arguments” for it… if it’s true? That seems like it should influence your conclusion somehow, doesn’t it?

At the current moment, I’m not interested in having to be the arbiter for deciding what is true for particularly complex topics. (Indeed, the research has nothing to do with this question, as it's about testing the persuasiveness of ARGUMENTS -- contrarian and conventional are just two factors that are varied). Initially, I was interested in only generating contrarian positions that were decidedly untrue (eg vaccines cause autism, or the moon landing was faked), versus more ambiguous contrarian positions, but most of what I’m interested in are the unpopular views that are plausibly compelling — at least on the first hearing.

I understand your quite sensible reluctance to set before yourself the task of making and proclaiming a judgment on the truth of each of your chosen “contrarian claims”. Unfortunately, this means that you’re excluding a big chunk of hypothesis space for reasons of convenience and not on any principled basis, which means that your entire investigation is fundamentally of questionable epistemic value.

Suppose you do your investigation and you conclude that the reason that highly educated people are attracted to your chosen “contrarian claims” for reason X (where X is something that has nothing to do with said claims’ truth values). Now suppose I read your findings, and I say to you: “You say the reason educated people are attracted to these claims is reason X; but I think actually the reason is that these claims are true. What steps did you take to rule out this alternate explanation, and on what basis do you judge said explanation to be less plausible than your provided explanation (which invokes reason X)?”

You would have no answer for me, isn’t that so? You could only say “I took no such steps; and I can make no such judgment.”

And given this, why should anyone take your proffered explanation seriously—whatever that explanation might be?

You are misinterpreting the purpose of the study, and then accusing me of missing something fundamental that makes you doubt everything about my epistemic value. The actual study involves an experiment in which different sets of arguments are offered for the same contrarian position in a between subjects study of belief change. The truth value is not actually relevant to me — just the kinds of arguments people find compelling, conditional on whether the position is contrarian or conventional.
4Ben Pace4y
I understand you to be saying that you just want to find out, if a belief is known to be contrary to popular opinion, whether people who have university degrees from high-status universities are more likely to take it on as their own. I guess there's something interesting here about what kinds of beliefs people wear as clothing and which kinds of beliefs transmit because of truthful arguments for them. I don't think that testing the hypothesis "Do people ever like to believe things because they think they're in on a secret that the rest of the world is too foolish to realise?" and "Which particular demographic does it the most?" is likely helpful. I expect it will likely come up with "Yes, we found a small but positive effect-size" and "Well-educated people do it a very little bit" and "People employed at tech jobs do it a little bit more". Maybe you have a reason that this is helpful? Like, it's not clear it's going to be a very robust result - depending on whether it's in-season to be contrarian, or whether it's in-season to be meta-contrarian, studies like this will give you opposite results, and the only real result is that "We can use information about the current fashion to change people's beliefs." I think there are more interesting questions to ask, like: * Which are the current conversations that are propagating because of status/class signalling? * What are the main mechanisms by which such coordination on signalling occurs? * What / where in society is the true conversation that is trying to figure out true things, and by what medium is that conversation had? * What causes people to use one type of reasoning versus the other?
Your assumptions about the research interest are incorrect (although likely no fault of your own, as I was being vague intentionally). The actual experiment tests different argumentative techniques on certain kinds of positions, depending on the initial level of background support that a position has (contrarian or conventional). See the comment I made at the top of the thread: "To be clear: this study is about testing different argumentative techniques on different kinds of positions (conventional vs contrarian). It's not about the overarching reasons why someone who already subscribes to a contrarian position might have been persuaded by it in the first place."
2Said Achmiz4y
How do you propose to separate the effects of argumentative techniques from the effects of “the overarching reasons why someone who already subscribes to a contrarian position might have been persuaded by it in the first place”? That is, how would you correct for this clearly quite serious confounding factor?
2Matt Goldenberg4y
This seems fairly easy by randomizing the types of arguments and the positions, no?
I identify individuals who don't currently subscribe to a contrarian belief. I give a random half of them one kind of argument for this position, and the other another kind of argument for the position. I compare belief change in either camp. There are more components to the study, but I'm not interested in defending the research methodology.
I agree with Said that truth (or precision of model, for untestable positions) is likely to be an important upstream causal factor if you're talking about correlation with IQ or education. Other correlates may have other causes. Do you have a metric for conventionality or contrarian-ness of an idea in a population? How do you decide whether "credit is risky; prefer cash" is the normal position or the rebel? This metric could be useful on it's own - seeing how different groups accept or reject various hypotheses could be a fascinating study.
The problem is that I can’t possibly have the expertise to discern which of the contrarian positions are true, and if I were to try to independently arrive at my own conclusions, I would invariably end up deferring to experts and authorities on the subject, which would, in most cases, be the non-contrarian position. My current simple method for operationalizing contrariness is simply looking at how popular a given belief is, across the relevant social groups you ascribe to.

I don't recycle paper. I want to economically encourage tree farms to sequester more carbon, and paper is one of the least problematic things to have in landfills, so I want a larger percentage of waste to be that.

This is a good example, and it’s one we currently use

Utilitarianism, and most forms of consequentialism, are not just normatively wrong but also logically incoherent.

1Teerth Aloke4y
Then, what is your preferred ethical theory?
3clone of saturn4y
Something like quasi-realist Hobbesian contractualism.

My first thought is that belief popularity is often (usually?) specific to a particular community, and for most of my beliefs I can identify at least one community I identify with in which the belief is not unpopular.

For example, I recently told someone that most people are not consequentialist decision makers, and instead think in terms more akin to separate magisteria, doing in each context what they and their culture customarily do. This person was shocked and took some time to process that. I don't think it would have been shocking to anyone here.

But to answer the spirit of the question: many of my mainstream!unpopular opinions come from the fact that I'm naturally drawn to more esoteric ideas and chains of reasoning, whether those take the form of math, physics, philosophy, or something else. That's how I ended up here in the first place. Examples include:

  • Humans should be using vastly more nuclear power than we currently do, and this would be true even if we didn't have better reactors designs available than those currently in use, but only if everyone believes this. This is based on my reading of historical data on relative safety and pollution output of
... (read more)
1Liam Donovan4y
I know this is off-topic, but I'm curious how you would distinguish between moral progress and "moral going-in-circles" (don't know what the right word is)?
I don't know. In practice, I don't think I do. On the one hand, I look over what I know about the last few thousand years of history and find that the farther back I go, the more horrible many of the people that were, in their own time, considered saintly, mainly seem, like St Augustine. On another hand, I have the most famous moral teachers of history from Jesus and the Buddha and Mohammed and Confucius and so on, and I feel like as a society we have been grappling with the same handful of basic underlying moral principles for a really long time. And on yet another hand, I have Robin Hanson's discussion of forager and farmer values arguing for cyclic trends on an even longer timescale. I'm sure I can find a few more hands besides. If I had to give a more concrete answer, I might go with something like this: over time we try to individually and collectively reconcile our moral intuitions and ethical precepts with the actual world we live in, while at the same time we're developing better methods of evaluating arguments and evidence to reduce mistakes in thinking. We keep finding contradictions in the practices we inherited, and look for ways to resolve them, and so on average those discrepancies will decrease with time. For the past few thousand years, despite huge oscillations and real losses, there seems to me to be a general trend in some overall direction that involves greater wealth, more options for individuals to choose their own lives, and capacity for cooperation among strangers across larger distances. So I think, if you sent me forward a hundred years, that once I got over the shock and started to understand the new world I was in, I'd be able to look at morally significant changes and consistently evaluate them as gains vs losses, even the ones the intuitively horrify my early 21st century expectations.

I thought it better to separate these out:

The FBI denied the existence of the Mafia until 1957.

The Masons and the Vatican conspired to take over the Italian media and thence the country kind of like what Silvio Berlusconi did. In fact, in 1982, his name was published as part of this plan.

Of the hundreds or thousands that died in the 1989 Beijing protests, fewer than 10 were in Tiananmen Square.

The NSA spied extensively on nominally allied countries and this was widely known in Europe, at least by 2000.

The CIA intentionally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Hillary Clinton had serious health issues during her 2016 campaign.

Um, you might also want to ask people to PM you, in case some people have contrarian beliefs that they don't want to report in the public comment section?

3clone of saturn4y
It seems like it would've been more productive to set up an anonymous google form or similar (like this recent EA forum one).
5Said Achmiz4y
Agreed, but this time, for God’s sake do not publish the submissions until you’re done collecting them!

I hope these aren't too political:

The Bible was not originally written in English, or even in Latin.

The seasons aren't caused by distance from the sun.

Edmund Burke was a Whig, opposed to the Tories.

Alexander Hamilton was an elitist banker.

Andrew Jackson was a Democrat.

Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

The North won the Civil War.

Secondhand smoke is mostly not harmful.

Almost everything is "alive" or "conscious" because the only interesting property that separates things that are "alive" or "dead" is whether or not they contain feedback processes (that, as a consequence, generate information and locally reduce entropy while globally increasing it).

1Rachel Shu4y
Do you use a separate word for the subjective experience of thought and perception?
"myself" could be that word. I have no evidence of any other subjective experiences. Alternately, you may not need a separate word - everything experiences things, perhaps as some function of the complexity of feedback mechanism.

Free speech. Total or should be restricted to 'civil speech'?

Truly contrarian position: Should be restricted to uncivil speech. (No, I don't actually hold this opinion. But I imagine that an interesting movie could be made using it.)
Comment was written in a hurry with the buzz of mentioning the sacred-to-many word - 'democracy' in another suggestion. Although wouldn't it be free speech or total censorship (silence?)? civil v. uncivil conjures some amusing ideas! If behaviour was civil and people actually thought from themselves rather than repeating. then would it matter how uncivilly we spoke? (random thoughts)

I strongly expect that "contrarian" is too general a category to really cut reality in any useful way. I think it's mostly about signalling (want to show individuality and leadership, without being too weird).

This implies that what is "contrarian" vs "conventional" is contextual, based on which group(s) are being signaled to. I don't know if this is a contrarian position or not - probably yes to some and no to others.

An interesting take on the topic (along with idea clustering) is : https://www.lesswrong.com/post... (read more)


“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isil and other radical Sunni groups in the region,” -Hilary Clinton

Expressing unpopular opinions can be good and necessary, but doing so merely because someone asked you to is foolish. Have some strategic common sense.

I'm going to classify my opinion on this as non-normative because it appears to be presented as a "good thing" whenever I come across it, and I don't agree.

Economic growth.

Shouldn't we be considering stability and sustainability for our resources rather than this magical "X% growth" I hear of?

Increase of understanding and spread of knowledge should always be encouraged.

(this statement is pretty conventional around here)

note that "hold an opinion" is a framing that doesn't match my experience. I consider opinions and assign probabilities to their predictions. I don't really "hold" any of them - more that I use some models more than others, and give them a bit more weight than others. None of them are zero, none 1.

It would be interesting to categorize the "seductiveness" of arguments and cross-check that against the importance of decisions that can be made with the opinion. I t... (read more)

The history of World War II has been rewritten to protect the guilty.

2Teerth Aloke4y
That is partially true. The extensive atrocities carried ot by the Western Allies have not been given as much spotlight as the atrocities of the Axis and now the Soviets.
To the victor goes the spoils, and that includes the text books. I think most would agree with this, although they wouldn't dare express it in public. That in itself brings up a large quantity of questions.
Yet you dare expressing it on LessWrong? What's "in public" then? Soap box on the street?
You seem to be following my every comment. I hope you hold no bias against me, as that would not lead to a productive discussion. I don't understand the point of your comment, what exactly are you trying to express? Is it perhaps my articulation and word choice? Language and words are a bit more complicated than a definition, sometimes you understand through context. This comment isn't a science, by public I meant out in the open not anonymously on a small online forum.
No I haven't, I just click through comments on posts that interest me. What I'm confused about is what you mean by "they wouldn't dare express it in public". There are entire communities and subcultures built around conspiracy theories on the web, whether it's 9/11, Holocaust denial, moon landing or flat earth. How much more public can it get?
I was talking for the average person, of course those groups exist but it doesn't mean everyone is comfortable stating the obvious in public. Western culture is sensitive about world war 2. Look at Japan you can go over there and mention the bombs and their war crimes and most won't care. We see this in comparing how the west vs east censor media such as games and movies. The ideas are public but most people are not willing to state them and risk their social lives.
I really don't think picking out the most conservative and conformist country on the planet supports your point very well. Of course they don't care, denying their past war crimes is the official position. Meanwhile in the US, the evils of Western Imperialism (including recent ones) is standard textbook material. Whether you agree with those textbooks or not, the phrase "history is written by the victors" usually doesn't imply self-critical writing. Or perhaps people are not willing to state them because they don't agree those ideas? If people are protected by legal rights to free speech and anonymity on the web yet some ideas still can't gain any traction on the market of ideas, you should start considering the possibility that those ideas aren't even secretly popular.
3paul ince4y
There are not many anonymous free speech places left. I only know of one or two and they are constantly under DDOS attack (amongst others) to shut them down. All the major platforms don't allow contrarian opinions to gather momentum and the mainstream news just ignores what they don't like. This mass censorship ensures that 'those ideas' never have a chance to become popular.
I was going to bring up Red Ice TV as a counter-example but just found out they got banned from Youtube 2 weeks ago. Troubling indeed.
I do not wish to further this discussion since it is off topic and you seem to not understand my point. That said I will give you a small response. Obviously culture can repress and encourage certain opinions and facts. Just because there is law for free speech doesn't mean you can say anything you want without repercussions.
Even if you suppose that the U.S. and China would want to censor the same types of things (past embarrassing things), there can exist different levels of censorship (and openness). The fact the U.S. talks about some past misdeeds does not mean 1) that it talks about current misdeeds, or 2) there are other past misdeeds it doesn't talk about. Establishing more specific examples would require more discussion - what do you mean by "Western imperialism"? Particularly, recently? Except when it's written by the losers.
How do they differ?
Sorry, It should be what they censor. A good example is the game Fallout 3, the American company that created it decided to censor a quest relating to the use of nuclear weapons just for the Japanese version. Funny enough, Japanese gamers complained that the quest was removed and they moded it back in. More examples of censored content in western games: the swastika in Battlefield 5 and Hitler's moustache in Wolfenstein. Some things are allowed in 1 country and others aren't , clearly we are more sensitive about that part of history.
  • Disappointment in sexual love is one of the most destructive forces on the planet, today, and our cultures lack the capacity to understand or work on this problem.
  • There is a living spiritual ecology, that we are all participating in. All living beings are striving, in one way or another, towards the divine world. The most important thing we can work towards, is the development of a society of dream, and this is the religious orientation for humanity.

I take Bostrum's Simulation Hypothesis seriously and strongly suspect that our reality is a simulation, in the literal sense of the word.

I play a form of Russian Roulette (which as far as I know, I invented) involving a torch lighter that only has a 1/6 chance of working on any given pull and hundred dollar bills. The two players take turns risking their own money until someone quits. Nothing prepared me for how controversial this game turns out to be. This may be an odd one as the underlying belief doesn't sound controversial; the value of an ac... (read more)

World Trade Centre building 7 did not collapse at free fall into its own footprint because of office fires.

downvotes? too contrarian? hahaha.

I downvoted this even though it followed instructions, because the final sentence has a scornful tone that does not seem conducive to good-faith intellectual discourse.
4paul ince4y
Apologies, the final sentence was an edit after the downvotes rolled in. I should have marked it as such. I was very surprised though that I met the brief and was downvoted.
2Charlie Steiner4y
Indeed. Have a compensatory upvote.
-11Teerth Aloke4y

I have a view that would seem contrarian in this community.

SIAI shifted its focus from triggering an AI-based Singularity to doing 'saferty' research, because Yudkowsky understood that SIAI is no better off at building AGI than any other AI research organization. Actually, worse, because of low funding and at that time the sole full-time member.

I hold a lot of contrarian positions but only because I actually believe them (guess I'm hard to seduce...). You might enjoy Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism by Scott Alexander for a cool take on contrarianism's seductive appeal though.

If you want to watch a funny (but unproductive) video about being contrarian, you might also enjoy Jreg's "Burn The Fence Down." He's a comedian who (ironically?) promotes the idea of Anti-Centrism.

Are you looking at any domain in particular?

Any domain works

Mandatory national service is a terrible idea.

6Said Achmiz4y
Is… is that a contrarian idea? I was not aware of the negation of this claim being a mainstream view. Who is advocating for mandatory national service?!
3Andrew McNabb4y
Among the intellectual class, I think it is contrarian, at least in the US. The idea is a common thread in American social thought going back to at least the early 1900's. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the the widening fissures in our society, It's been very common for elites to bemoan the lack of social cohesion and suggest that mandatory national service is the answer. Not just a military draft, or registering for the selective service, but actual mandatory service by all young adults for a period of one-two years.
I had seen claims that Pete Buttigieg had made calls for mandatory national service, but turns out it was actually a substantial increase in the number of paid service opportunities.
2clone of saturn4y
It seems fairly uncontroversial to say that the list of countries with mandatory national service doesn't seem like a list of countries that are notoriously terrible.
6Said Achmiz4y
That list includes the United States, so it clearly can’t be a list of countries with mandatory national service.
1Liam Donovan4y
I think the US is listed because it's mandatory that we register for the draft
4Said Achmiz4y
No such speculation is necessary; you need only to, you know, read the page, to see that the list is simply a list of countries with national service, period—whether compulsory or voluntary.
This seems to be the correct list to look at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription#By_country
5Said Achmiz4y
Thanks! Looking at that list, it’s certainly not composed entirely of countries that are “notoriously terrible” (e.g., Singapore, Israel, Estonia, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, are all, I am given to understand, quite nice)… but the list is clearly skewed toward countries I very much would not want to live in, much more so than the list of countries without conscription.
1Liam Donovan4y
Yep, I misread the page, my mistake

Democracy - good or bad?

In theory and in practice. Around the world.

Campaigning. Levels of honesty, accountability and consistency v. propaganda, fitting in with today's perceived public opinion, who can shout the loudest, or the media's take for the day.

“Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.”
Terry Pratchett, Mort

democracy - everyone gets an equal say ...

democracy - a system where 2 i... (read more)

1Matthew Barnett4y
Downvoted because the question specified non-normative opinions.
Thanks for an explanation of a down-vote, it's good to know why! What is the normative opinion of democracy? (depends on who you ask I guess!) And then the opposite.