Weird beliefs are the ones you wouldn’t bring up in polite conversation if you didn’t want to risk any reputational capital. They are not the truths that everyone knows but which are ideologically impolite to bring up. They are weird because there is a consensus that correct, right thinking people don’t believe them at all.
The propensity of brilliant scientists to pursue marginal and socially unpopular ideas – weird beliefs – is well documented. Ben Carson is a literal brain surgeon who has pioneered new techniques in his field. He also believes the Egyptian pyramids were used to store grain. This is common enough among Nobel Prize winning scientists that it has been given a name – “the Nobel syndrome.”
A lot of very successful people have a higher than average number of weird beliefs or are more honest about disclosing them. This is a rational if unconscious meta-cognitive strategy.
If you’re an investor speculating in the marketplace, the highest payoff is where you can be correctly contrarian. If a company is going to do well, and everyone knows it’s going to do well, the market value of the company already reflects this. If the company is going to do poorly and everyone knows it’s going to do poorly, you don’t do yourself any good by deluding yourself that it is going to take off. The sweet spot is where the company looks like garbage to everyone else, but you correctly evaluate otherwise.
This analogy holds true in other contexts: there are many areas where, if you can be correctly contrarian you can go and pluck low hanging fruit that other people overlook.
So, to go one meta-level up, if being a correct contrarian is so great, why the hell isn’t everyone else doing it?
The basic and normie-pilled answer is because being a correct contrarian is hard. The correct answer is because they’re basic and normie-pilled.
Correct Contrarianism – the Scattershot Approach
Lots of correct contrarians aren’t correct contrarians all the time, they’re just contrarians who got lucky. Or, more accurately, they have a meta-cognitive belief strategy that makes them lucky. Which is why very successful people often have lots of super weird beliefs that don’t appear to be causally connected to their success in any way.
The reason it pays off to entertain weird beliefs even if they are wrong is that not all weird beliefs have symmetrical upsides and downsides. Some beliefs may offer a big payoff if you’re right and almost no downside if you’re wrong. Eventually, you are going to be right about something other people are wrong about. If you have protected your belief portfolio against downsides, then the payoffs you get from being a correct contrarian should more than cover your reputational costs.
People who freaked out about COVID 19 early and started social distancing and masking before governments and health organizations told them to are an example of people who took a small, social risk on a weird belief with a huge upside if they were right (avoiding infection of themselves and others) and almost no downside if they were wrong (other than looking like weirdos).
There are, of course, weird beliefs with massive downsides. If you believe that cancer can be treated homeopathically – and you put all your money on that horse – the cost of being wrong could kill you. This is also why evolution has a systematic bias towards false positive threat evaluations. Being startled by a stick that looks like a snake is better than being startled by a snake that looks like a stick. Naïve skeptics focus only on the “correctness” of beliefs without looking at the costs incurred by being right or wrong. Skeptics and debunkers who wish to be of genuine service would do well to evaluate beliefs by their human costs, and not their “irrationality” wrongly equated to social acceptability.
There is always a reputational cost to having weird ideas and acting on them publicly. If you are publicly seen to be correct often enough, or correct about something *really big*, you might gain enough reputational capital to cover all your reputational costs for all the weird beliefs in your portfolio. Correct contrarians with huge surpluses of reputational capital may come to be seen as “eccentric geniuses.”