Conventional, Contrarian, Conspiracy Theorist

I recently ran across a tweet from my friend Ben Casnocha that quoted conservative thinker Ross Douthat:

The “outsider intellectual” archetype who believes conspiracy theories, e.g. stolen elections: “Extremely smart people whose self-identification is bound up in constantly questioning and doubting official forms of knowledge.”

I have a number of very smart friends who fit into this category. Despite their advanced degrees from Stanford/Harvard/MIT and worldly success, they still fall prey to conspiracy theorists because they apply their sharp analytical minds to conventional wisdom, but then turn them off when it comes to their pet theories. Unfortunately, because they are so smart, they have a great deal of credibility, and they can make conspiracy theories sound reasonable.

The meta issue is that people take an extreme and suboptimal approach to how they apprehend the world.

Conventional Wisdom

Most people follow conventional wisdom. It feels safe and comfortable to believe what most other people believe. Yet blindly following conventional wisdom lacks principle. The hallmark of this is appeal to authority, without the ability to cite underlying principle or evidence.


The contrarian questions conventional wisdom He or she assumes that the lazy belief of conventional wisdom is likely wrong, and is drawn to unconventional views. This doesn’t make a contrarian a conspiracy theorist, but it does increase the propensity to become one.

The difference between conspiracy theorist and a true contrarian, is that the true contrarian continues to be a skeptic of conspiracy theories as well.

I remember having lunch with one particularly contrarian friend, who applied his skepticism to everything, which meant that in the end, when I asked him what he did believe in, he couldn’t name anything.

Conspiracy Theorist

A conspiracy theorist loves to feel superior to others by being in on the “secret.” At first glance, a conspiracy theorist might seem to be contrarian, but the difference becomes evident when you ask him or her to explain their beliefs. A true contrarian will express skepticism and uncertainty about those beliefs, and lay out the principles and evidence for those beliefs. A conspiracy theorist appears to do the same thing, but lays out principles that are inconsistent and contradictory, and evidence that is easily debunked with 30 seconds of Google searching. (Note that the conspiracy theorist will not admit it, instead saying things like, “You can’t believe anything published in the New England Journal of Medicine!”)

I cannot tell you how often during these dark days of 2020 that I have had to debunk my friends’ conspiracy theories. One one occasion, all I had to do was to actually read the study being cited, which my friend had obviously not done, since its actual text contracted the theory it was being cited to support on right-wing media sites. In other words, the millions of people quoting and tweeting the conspiracy had never bothered to read the “evidence” for it.

What all of these flawed mental approaches have in common is that they seek emotional satisfaction (belonging to the crowd, standing out from the sheep) rather than the truth, which depends on principle and evidence.

The approach I recommend and try to follow, though I am not always successful, is to treat conventional wisdom as a default that should be examined through the lens of principle and evidence, and if necessary, discarded and disregarded.

I’m not going to be contrarian just to be contrarian–that’s called being a disagreeable asshole. But I’m willing to defy conventional wisdom if I have a good reason for doing so (which means that I have principle and evidence behind my belief, and I can explain it to others).

The irony, of course, is that if one is successful at explaining one’s beliefs, they can become the conventional wisdom against which others rebel!

Blitzscaling went against conventional wisdom when Reid and I created the term, but since its release, a version of it has become conventional wisdom. Whether or not others believed in it doesn’t make it more or less true.

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