Curation and The Middle Path of Contrarianism

December 28, 2020

Earlier this year, I wrote about Stripe Press and the value of curation. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it though, and I continue to think that it’s one of the most important concepts to center around as we walk blindfolded into 2021.

We’re in the middle of the age of the algorithm, and our writings and photographs and music have all been reduced to “content”, as Andrew Sullivan has said. Many of us have gained the entire world of knowledge at our fingertips by losing the ability to seek and follow wisdom. Curation is not about consuming content that is served to you, but about finding and exploring things that you don’t fully understand.

Reading books is the key way to do this. It is old and slow— often slower if it’s a good book. When I read David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality it required my whole brain. And I can’t go a page when reading Christopher Hitchens without jotting down a note or looking up a new word I didn’t know before. I think I’m fairly well-read and have a decent vocabulary, but he blows me away every time, using delicious and new words with insight and frivolity. Obloquy. Roseate. Galere. It’s beautiful and brilliant.

Nothing is so rich in ideas as books. Other media can crystallize a single thought, but not in the same way, and rarely more than one at a time. But perhaps more importantly, books inspire new paths and new pursuits. Books inhere more potential than other media. (You see what I did there right? Yeah, inhere is another Hitchens word.)

Books are the best way, but not the only way, to curate. As I mentioned about Stripe Press, finding interesting people and letting them lead you down new paths works particularly well too. And I gave a starting list: Patrick Collison, Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen, Russ Roberts, Peter Robinson, Sam Harris, and Paul Graham. There’s plenty more— Hitchens is a guide for words and language; Freeman Dyson for the nature of science and inquiry.

These people are interesting and engaged in the act of curation, which means I’m letting them guide where I go. This works because they’re all thoughtful and intellectually curious and, more importantly, they’re seeking truth. Where debate holds primacy in the mass media and TV markets of society - usually in 30 second spots - dialectic is the more undervalued and underrepresented discourse. Dialectic is literally a discourse where people wish to seek the truth. They are engaged against each other not to consolidate power, but to further understanding. (Christopher Hitchens is known to be one of the most acerbic debaters of the modern era. But he should be more properly considered a student of dialectic and truth and has changed his stance when presented with evidence. The most notable example was when he insisted that waterboarding was not torture, volunteered to undergo the practice himself, and immediately and violently changed his mind.)

Many of the people on my list are considered contrarian - Freeman Dyson famously considered himself one and thought this of vital importance. The older I get the more I value the property of contrarianism, and the more I think it’s misunderstood. Most people hear contrarian and think more of esotericism: the idea that some small group of people possesses secret knowledge that they either keep to themselves or that the world rejects. This is what conspiracy theories are.

But that’s not it. Contrarianism is wondering if the common view isn’t quite right. The list of people above are all First Principles thinkers. Their goal is to get to the bottom of things and understand them from the ground up. They will not rely on what others say. They are a bulwark against group think. Against the mob. Against the popular view. We all vastly underestimate the influence of our peers and our world on how we think. Patrick McKenzie said “Pick your peer group wisely because you’re giving them write access to both your conscious thoughts and your entire worldview.” First principles thinking is a parity bit for detecting errors in thought processes.

Being contrarian has societal value too. Consider this metaphor bySlateStarCodex.

There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all, such that we could have a dark matter planet exactly co-incident with Earth and never know. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us and through us, maybe my house is in the Times Square of a great dark matter city, maybe a few meters away from me a dark matter blogger is writing on his dark matter computer about how weird it would be if there was a light matter person he couldn’t see right next to him.

This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.

In our increasingly polarized world, the social connections, online personalities and influences, and news cycles we tune into are increasingly echo chambers for outlooks or opinions to which we already subscribe. Contrarianism should serve as a bulwark against this too.

“It is never worth a first class mans time to express a majority opinion. By definition, there are plenty of others to do that.”

— GH Hardy

My favorite example of this is The Deep Hot Biosphere by Tommy Gold. Gold was a physicist out of his depth when it came to geology and biology. His theory was that hydrocarbons and fossil fuels do not come from broken down biomass, but rather from deep within the mantle of the Earth itself. He also believed that there was a huge biosphere of single-celled life in the entire crust of the earth all the way down to the mantle.

These theories are contrarian to the extreme. So in order to make his case, Gold needs to explain not just his own theories, but also the common scientific views and why they’re not a complete explanation. As the outcast theory, Gold can explain both sides of the argument but the establishment often cannot. Being contrarian, almost by definition, means evaluating from first principles.

Which is why we should find those seeking dialectic rather than debate, or those developing perspective from first principles, or those that do not hold the majority viewpoint, or - and this is the most socially important - those that do not hold your viewpoint. These last will prove the most valuable - either by changing your perspective or by providing more data and insight on why you disagree.

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