Contrarians

Q: How many TED speakers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: It’s a really obscure number—you won’t have heard of it.

A few years ago, one of the smartest people I know told me that we shouldn’t worry about climate change. “We’ll figure it out,” he said. When I asked how, he said, “Oh, I don’t know, but we will. There’s always a crisis, and we always get through it. Remember nuclear war in the 1980s? Everybody was worried we were going to blow ourselves up, but here we are.”

The conversation moved on to other things, but his remark stuck in my head. Was I wrong in thinking of climate change as an existential threat? Were all the scientists I knew under-estimating the power of human ingenuity? The lights didn’t come on until until I told the story to a friend, who said, “Oh, he’s just trying to be clever.”

When I asked what she meant, she explained that nobody ever got attention by agreeing with the crowd. If you grew up defining yourself as “the smartest kid in the room” you have to know something no-one else knows, split a hair no-one else has noticed, or be able to explain to everyone precisely how naive they are. If you’re surrounded by racists, you need to be the one who knows that race is a socially-constructed concept with no scientific foundation and how standardized tests are slanted to produce the results that the powerful are comfortable with. If you’re in a room full of progressives, though, your need for attention compels you to be the one saying, “Well, actually…” and then (regretfully—always regretfully) explaining that yes, some truths might be unpopular and difficult to face, but… You’re the mirror image of Hoffer’s true believer: instead of needing a cause to believe in, you need something to disbelieve, because otherwise you’re just one of the herd.

I’m starting to see this in some discussions of #MeToo and accountability and inclusivity in tech. I don’t know if most people really believe we’re doing badly, but the majority now say that we are, which means that the only way some smarter-thans can assuage their insecurity is to say, “Well, actually…” and then take the devil’s side. I honestly don’t know how many are actually misogynists and how many are just sad and lonely and still looking for the praise they got from their teachers for being clever. Speaking as someone who made a fool of himself time and time again by trying to be the smartest person in the room, though, my advice to such contrarians is, “Get over yourself.”

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