Narcissistic Contrarianism

post by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T00:19:14.999Z · score: -1 (14 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 29 comments

The recent discussion on neo-reactionary-ism brought out some references to (intellectual hipsters and) meta-contrarianism linking to a 2010 posting by Yvain.

For some time I've been thinking about "narcissistic contrarians" -- those who make an art form of their exotically counterintuitive belief systems, who combine positions not normally met in the same person.  There can be good reasons for being a contrarian.  If you're looking for a scarce resource, it may help to not look where everyone else is looking, hence contrarian stock market investors may do very well, if they actually see something others don't; same with oil explorers.  Less creditably, I believe Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise made reference to the way a novice pundit or prognosticator may have nothing to gain by saying anything like what other people are saying, and much to gain, in taking some wild extravagant position or prediction if it happens to attract an audience others have ignored, or if the predictions happens to be right.

The Narcissistic Contrarian is much like the Intellectual Hipster, but more extreme.  The Intellectual Hipster usually stakes out a few unusual or incongruous positions, to create an identity that stands out from the crowd.  The Narcissistic Contrarian is constantly dazzling her fans.  Something written by Camille Paglia made me think of the idea in the first place.  Nicholas Taleb is another suspect although I think he started out with some good ideas.  If she/he manages to get a fan-base, they are apt to be pretty worshipful -- they can't imagine being able to come up with such a wild set of insights.  The contrarianism is for its own sake rather than an attempt to find and settle on some previously undiscovered thing, so it particularly likely to lead people astray, into unproductive avenues of thought.

Does anyone else think this is a real and useful distinction?

29 comments

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comment by Salemicus · 2014-11-21T12:18:38.878Z · score: 19 (19 votes) · LW · GW

For some time I've been thinking about "narcissistic contrarians" -- those who make an art form of their exotically counterintuitive belief systems, who combine positions not normally met in the same person.

Ah, another irregular verb.

  • I am a deep and original thinker, synthesising good ideas from multiple sources without regard to ideology.
  • You are a magpie, with second-hand beliefs cobbled together without structure.
  • He is a narcissistic contrarian, making an art form of his exotically counterintuitive belief system, combining positions not normally met in the same person.

I am deeply suspicious when people try to explain away their opponents' beliefs, rather than defeat them intellectually.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T15:11:56.394Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, another irregular verb. I am a deep and original thinker, synthesising good ideas from multiple sources without regard to ideology.

I'm going over the verbs trying to locate what you're referring to as an irregular verb. Am I making a mistake? Does "irregular verb" have some metaphorical connotation I'm not aware of?

You seem to follow with 3 likely different interpretations of the same behavior. If I understand it correctly, that is kind of interesting, I'll warrant

I am deeply suspicious when people try to explain away their opponents' beliefs, rather than defeat them intellectually

So you have a criteria for being skeptical of (I won't say "explaining away", which would be presumptuous) my arguments having to do with the style of my argument rather than its content. That is good - I think we all should have such criteria, unless we plan to intellectually take apart all of the thousands upon thousands of assertions that cross our paths.

I have been proposing one such. You just proposed another, one which is generally pretty good.

Once you criticize something as "to explain away" most of what else you say is apt to be redundant.

comment by Salemicus · 2014-11-21T17:01:01.740Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Does "irregular verb" have some metaphorical connotation I'm not aware of?

Yes.

So you have a criteria for being skeptical of (I won't say "explaining away", which would be presumptuous) my arguments having to do with the style of my argument rather than its content.

No, I am criticising the content of your argument. You are calling for a refusal to engage with arguments you specifically concede are apparently persuasive ("dazzle their fans"), because they might lead to "unproductive avenues of thought", based on an evidence-free assertion that their originators just want to be different. You provide no basis for distinguishing "narcissistic contrarians" from people who sincerely take non-mainstream positions. You do not have special insight into the internal minds of your opponents.

I'm content to engage with Camille Paglia and Nicholas Taleb and conclude they're wrong. I don't need to go further and engage in armchair psychoanalysis of people I've never met.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T19:11:16.738Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I am deeply suspicious when people try to explain away their opponents' beliefs, rather than defeat them intellectually

Part of your misunderstanding, I think, is to assume I have an "opponent". I've read 3 of Taleb's books, and will probably read him again -- maybe some of the more technical stuff he puts on his facebook page, when I'm willing to work hard enough to understand it, but sometimes I take him with a grain of salt, or think to myself "Oh I wish you wouldn't do that". I think I've read enough of Paglia (which isn't much) for a lifetime, though maybe I'll be proven wrong some day -- the possibility of proving myself wrong just isn't enough of a priority to make me pick up another article of hers at present.

Neither are you an enemy, and in this whole exchange, I've learned two useful concepts, one of them from you, so thanks.

You are calling for a refusal to engage with arguments you specifically concede are apparently persuasive ("dazzle their fans"),

No, I wouldn't call that ("dazzle...) a concession that the arguments are "apparently persuasive", whatever that means, and "calling for a refusal to engage with arguments" sounds like a sort of high drama that I'd very seldom if ever engage in.

comment by gjm · 2014-11-21T18:30:45.863Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Does "irregular verb" have some metaphorical connotation I'm not aware of?

Yes. (At least with a plausible guess at what you're aware of.) The point is precisely the observation you make that these are three descriptions of the same behaviour; the implied criticism here is that you (or some hypothetical person who somewhat resembles you) chooses very differently-biased descriptions of the same behaviour depending on whether it's your own or someone else's. (The comparison is of course with irregular verbs in natural languages -- I am / you are / he is. The main point is the difference between the "I" and "he" versions, the "you" typically being something intermediate.)

So it's more or less an accusation of insincerity. Salemicus is suggesting that you are hostile to some varieties of eclecticism when other people do them, but not when you do the same yourself. (I have no idea what evidence, if any, he has.)

comment by Lumifer · 2014-11-21T15:59:15.068Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Does "irregular verb" have some metaphorical connotation I'm not aware of?

Yes. In the context it describes a situation when the same condition (characteristic, feature, position, etc.) is evaluated very differently depending on whether it's held by the speaker himself (I am), someone close to him (You are), or a third party (He is).

Here is a crude version: I am an original thinker, you are a weirdo, and he is insane.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-11-21T15:44:02.656Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to follow with 3 likely different interpretations of the same behavior.

The key thing is the pronoun. Nobody thinks of himself as a narcissistic contrarian. They rather think of themselves as a deep and original thinker.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T15:51:27.488Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actually I suspect there are a few more self-aware ones who just have a grand old time dazzling people.

In order of decreasing likelihood:

Norman Mailer (and I was trying to think of someone probably living or more recently deceased who's more Norman Mailer than Norman Mailer -- any clues?)

Camille Paglia

Nicholas Nassim Taleb

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2014-11-23T01:05:57.777Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well said. My sentiments, but better expressed. This is the same reflexive action that was falsification-ism vs pseudo science.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-11-21T01:39:49.156Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Not everything is signaling.

I have a simpler explanation.

Where true data driven testing and validation isn't possible, which coincidentally involves most of the theories we get all excited and huffy about, theories will suck.

A "Narcissistic Contrarian" is just someone who can see that your theory sucks too.

In the realm of non testable theories, theories will be generated as responses to other theories. The more intellectually compulsive you are, the more you are driven to follow that thread of criticism, and in the limit you won't stop until you can no longer find the error in the thread, whether yourself, or in a valid critique by others. The more obscure the theory, the less it has been subjected to criticism, and the harder to find a valid critique.

Honest, intelligent, diligent people who compulsively care about the truth will stop at some personal tweak to obscure theories lacking widespread criticism, not because they're trying to "create an identity", but because that is where the trail has grown cold.

With less diligence, you simply stop when you cease interacting with people who can beat your kung fu. Your position is no longer problematic at that point. The easiest way is to live in a monoculture.

People who live in monocultures stop earlier. Those who don't live in a monoculture will have influences from the monocultures, and "combine positions not normally met in the same person."

Some people are just intellectually compulsive, and don't spend their days saying or doing things primarily to present an image to others. No doubt that attitude is hard for those who do to comprehend, just as it is difficult for those who don't to get their head around the attitude of those who do.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T15:30:57.062Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm extremely intellectually compulsive if I do say so perhaps immodestly; just for example, I read a lot of books by people I expect to disagree with, and in fields I start out with no clue about; but I'm trying to get better and better at knowing where to draw the line -- and to share some of thoughts on on this in part so they can be criticized.

With less diligence, you simply stop when you cease interacting with people who can beat your kung fu.

Well, here I am, still interacting with you. Maybe my kung fu is being beaten, maybe not (by the way, sadly, David Carradine died a few years back in a Bangkok hotel of asphyxiation -- at least that's what Wikipedia says -- I looked it up because I had the notion maybe it was very recent. I used to like Kung Fu, but then when Carradine became such an action/adventure B actor, I was disillusioned - such are the follies of youth).

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-11-25T19:53:20.926Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm extremely intellectually compulsive if I do say so perhaps immodestly

To break a little bad news, calling yourself "intellectually compulsive" really isn't complimenting yourself.

The Official Ideology is that a concern for the truth is an overriding value, quite like how purity and obeying God are overriding values to the religious. In the Official Ideology, what everyone professes to believe, there is a certain status given to zealots for Truth, just as there is a certain status given to zealots for God.

Stripped of the ideology, ideas are a means to accomplishing things in the world. Indulging in a compulsion to tidy them up regardless of any intent or plan to use them is intellectual OCD, mental masturbation, or both, depending on the precise drive/reward structure of the compulsion.

Well, here I am, still interacting with you. Maybe my kung fu is being beaten, maybe not

Well, as you yourself say, you're kind of intellectually compulsive, so that you have the diligence of the zealot, and wouldn't be one of the less diligent who stop when their arguments stop winning, or the even less diligent, who just don't care if their arguments win or not.

I'd note that I've been following the Official Ideology by characterizing the compulsion to tidy up ideas as "diligence". Engaging in compulsive activity is not diligence. The road to recovery is long for Ideaholics.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-12-02T02:20:59.732Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm extremely intellectually compulsive if I do say so perhaps immodestly

To break a little bad news, calling yourself "intellectually compulsive" really isn't complimenting yourself.

Generally I expect (and get) a higher quality of sarcasm than this from LW.

In your prev. post to which I was responding -- headed "Not everything is signaling", you seemed to be reading me as thinking everything is signalling,

In saying

Some people are just intellectually compulsive, and don't spend their days saying or doing things primarily to present an image to others. No doubt that attitude is hard for those who do to comprehend, just as it is difficult for those who don't to get their head around the attitude of those who do.

It seemed like you might be promoting being "intellectually compulsive" with the withering clause "No doubt that attitude is hard for those who do [my interp: mostly preoccupy themselves with presenting an image] to comprehend". I hope you can see why I inferred that the "intellectually compulsive" were a superior fraternity to those who "mostly preoccupy themselves with presenting an image".

But it seems that by your lights, the intellectually compulsive are trumped by those who know that

ideas are a means to accomplishing things in the world. Indulging in a compulsion to tidy them up regardless of any intent or plan to use them is intellectual OCD, mental masturbation, or both, depending on the precise drive/reward structure of the compulsion.

So would that be your characterization of those involved in pure mathematics? To say nothing of those who spent centuries collating tables of apparent (as seen from position x,y on earth on x date/time) positions of the planets against the backdrop of the fixed stars which became the raw data for validating Kepler's and Newton's theses. Were they OCD mental masturbators whose lives were wasted?

I think perhaps you are spending an inordinate amount of effort making other writers seem like silly straw men. I would suggest you primarily read posts that you can respect, and bother to understand and engage with. I am being serious here, trying not to engage in mere putdown-ism.

comment by shminux · 2014-11-21T04:31:10.614Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Self-identified contrarians are best ignored. Those labeled "contrarian" by outsiders might be worth paying more attention to.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T15:15:52.589Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I like that - probably a good rule of thumb, although it a stock-picker starts off saying they're a contrarian, I wouldn't necessarily stop listening. I'd also be more specific and say that labeled "contrarian" in an approving way by someone I trust might be worth paying attention to.

But rules of thumb aren't meant to be so wordy, so I still like yours.

comment by drethelin · 2014-11-21T00:50:44.122Z · score: 5 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I can see why you might want to invent a hefty phrase to bludgeon people you disagree with or want to make fun of but I can't really endorse it.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T01:00:33.889Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Well, now I feel bludgeoned. To refer to your judgement or theory about what is going on with me as simply "seeing", and embed it in a subordinate clause is an old rhetorical trick, which I think we should avoid here.

But really, I am very interested in the problem of knowing (and somehow having that knowledge be transmittable) who it is profitable to listen to, and who will lead one astray, because I see a breakdown of common sense about this in the face of the profusion of "information" sources we have these days. This concern started when I began to get forwarded emails from my mother with proofs that Obama is a Muslim and that sort of thing. I worry that we may be going from a mediocre order of things, like the days of 3 major TV channels, where there is a hell of a lot going on that we don't get (but we're not apt to get all that excited and be stampeded over a cliff like the Germans were in the 1930s) to something worse than mediocre.

comment by drethelin · 2014-11-21T08:01:14.106Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The easiest way to filter out 99 percent of this is to ignore anything that has no impact on your life (ie doesn't pay rent). Most of the people you could be listening to aren't profitable, but also won't lead you astray: you'll just go on the same regardless. In the final percentage point there are still a lot of confusing opinions that various smart people have, in regards to diet, morality, education, exchethera, but at that point I think it's usually more productive to cross reference the specific opinions rather than look at people as contrarians or not. If you can't cross-check a belief either through reference to other sources, or through your own studies or experience, then it probably isn't relevant one way or the other.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T15:45:42.906Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The easiest way to filter out 99 percent of this is to ignore anything that has no impact on your life (ie doesn't pay rent).

Eh? If I was renting, I think that would have an impact on my life -- so maybe this is yet another metaphor I never heard of.

If everyone was processing reality to the best of their analytical (and other) abilities, and honestly passing on the conclusions they reach then virtuosity at recognizing rational fallacies would go a lot further than I think it actually does; I'm afraid much of what we need is a social understanding of others.

Just FWIW, Aspergers types, which many I encounter here are self-proclaimed to be, have a chance to do this better than other people, because they have to do consciously what others have no idea that they're doing. By the way, book recommendation: The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch. Very funny and enlightening, about an Aspergers/non-Aspergers mixed marriage. My wife and I had a good time reading it.

comment by gjm · 2014-11-21T18:32:29.568Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

maybe this is yet another metaphor I never heard of.

Yup. See: Making beliefs pay rent.

comment by jaime2000 · 2014-11-21T16:05:20.290Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Eh? If I was renting, I think that would have an impact on my life -- so maybe this is yet another metaphor I never heard of.

It's from _The Sequences_, which you should read. Specifically, it's from the post "Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences)".

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2014-11-22T00:24:25.654Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

What utter pretense. It's you who's the contrarian. People like you have no idea what Taleb does, and how wildly successful he has managed to be at what all other feeble intellectuals fail at. He is the 'level above'. Generally speaking people who say this don't really know what they're doing and we can safely ignore them.

We should adjust our priors against you much before Taleb. I doubt you are capable to judge good "ideas". When Kahneman himself says Taleb changed his views, that's the guy. Not the other way around. So who's the "contrarian?"

comment by Brillyant · 2014-11-22T04:34:36.851Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Yikes. Rough day?

comment by MrMind · 2014-11-24T09:08:24.471Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I fail to see in any way how Taleeb could be considered such a genius. His ideas are often a banalization of themes from Bayesian inference (the black swan thing) or glut of diverse ideas under a wrong description (the anti-fragility thing).
You cannot even say that he proves his worth as an investor: Warren Buffet, say, is much better at investing but he says saner things.
"Kahneman says" is just argument from authority, and it surprises me that someone can still believe for it to be effective here.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-12-02T03:43:39.509Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Appeal to authority is perfectly reasonable when you're appealing to a person who trusts the authority you're appealing to. His reasons for that trust may be good or bad, but that appeal constitutes evidence to him.

If Kahneman says Taleeb changed his views, I take that as evidence in favor of Taleeb's ideas being worth looking at.

I came to LW largely because of the converse - the references to Jaynes and Korzybski was evidence to me of good intellectual taste.

comment by MrMind · 2014-12-02T09:26:50.215Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

His reasons for that trust may be good or bad, but that appeal constitutes evidence to him.

Sure it is, but always in the context of evaluating the probability of someone to be a good source. If you later find out that Taleeb sucks, then you would lower the value of Kahneman as an authority (as I did).

"Appeal to authority", used as a fallacy in the original comment, evades this by proposing almost-absolute value or truth, for which you should not doubt: "People like you have no idea what Taleb does, and how wildly successful he has managed to be at what all other feeble intellectuals fail at. He is the 'level above'." or "When Kahneman himself says Taleb changed his views, that's the guy".

comment by SanguineEmpiricist · 2014-12-11T05:09:31.281Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This was so dumb. Gelman which is the bayesian statistics textbook Less Wrong recommends from/author of says this

http://andrewgelman.com/2007/04/09/nassim_talebs_t/

"That said, I admit that my two books on statistical methods are almost entirely devoted to modeling “white swans.” My only defense here is that Bayesian methods allow us to fully explore the implications of a model, the better to improve it when we find discrepancies with data. Just as a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg, Bayesian inference is just a theory’s way of uncovering problems with can lead to a better theory. I firmly believe that what makes Bayesian inference really work is a willingness (if not eagerness) to check fit with data and abandon and improve models often."

That told me that you are making such a crippling interpretation, that you have not read any of the works, and you have no idea what you are saying. If all you got was that statement, you are severely behind. Please tell me why you think antifragility is a packaged name, or whatever you are saying.

I'm seriously cringing at why you even mentioned bayesian in this. It's so funny, "Bayesians" almost never know probability theory, large deviations, cramer conditions, non-ergodicity etc etc. They know absolutely no extreme value theory.

By the way, assuming your probability distribution via monte-carlo sampling will be robust to time has been demonstrated false over and over again.

anti-fragility is related to jensen's inequality which is related to a larger class of functional inequalities, and related to information theory.

I'm willing to talk to you this over time and generate a discussion to see what you mean, but from first glance, you have not read any piece of work or have completely misrepresented his work. Statements like that are why people don't know what they're saying.

"Bayesian's" especially people who dostatistics have such a malnourished view on convergence of limit theorems that I wonder what they're even talking about. It takes too long to establish convergence. Even Jaynes gets that wrong in his book.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2014-11-21T05:19:02.769Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Why don't you just call them "screwballs" and be done with it?

comment by HalMorris · 2014-11-21T15:13:11.610Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's a much broader (and vaguer) class.