How to choose a cognitive subculture: A guide for non-cranks

Don Watkins
7 min readFeb 13, 2022


Don Watkins

Photo by Naomi Mckinney on Unsplash

To whatever extent you value political liberty, you face a certain tension: you have to defend exercises of freedom that you think are wrong, distasteful, even immoral. If you believe in free speech, then, dammit, you have to defend to the death my right to say a bunch of boneheaded things.

The right way to cope with that tension is to keep in mind the higher level principle: if you give the government the power to suppress bad ideas, you’re giving the government the power to decide which ideas are bad. Including good (but unpopular) ones.

But that doesn’t erase the reality that bad ideas are really bad and you should oppose them. And this goes beyond free speech. Cheating on your partner shouldn’t be illegal, but it’s really bad if you cheat on your partner.

Often, however, people defending liberty end up defending bad uses of liberty. Example:

Why does this happen? And how do you keep it from happening to you?

The danger of non-conformity

Being a supporter of liberty today often puts you outside the mainstream. I’m not even talking about people who are explicit radicals. But, like, if you think it’s really bad that housing is expensive and you think maybe it would be a good idea to stop homeowners from nixing new development, you’re bowing out of the mainstream.

Any thoughtful person is going to be an intellectual non-conformist at least some of the time. Every single culture in history has gotten important things wrong. And many cultures have gotten really, really important things really, really wrong. You have to be willing to question and reject the mainstream.

But at the same time, rejecting the mainstream is a big deal. Because almost by definition, if something is mainstream, a lot of people more informed and intelligent than you think you’re wrong. And so the question you need to ask yourself when you’re rejecting a consensus is: what’s my unfair advantage? What do I know that these people don’t?

What often happens to smart people is they find one area where they do have an unfair advantage and bow out of the mainstream — but then they go on to form an anti-mainstream bias. “If most people believe it, it’s probably not true.”

I recently saw a Joe Rogan meme that said something like: “Nine out of ten dentists recommend flossing. That one guy must be on to something. Get him on the show!” That’s the mentality I’m talking about.

What makes the anti-mainstream bias particularly seductive is the nature of non-mainstream subcultures.

The danger of agreement

I’m an Objectivist, and thinking that Ayn Rand was right about philosophy puts you well outside the philosophical and cultural mainstream. And as a result, you get this really tight-knit subculture among people who are influenced by her.

It’s amazing because you meet a lot of smart people who share your ideas. But it’s also really dangerous. You can get caught in an echo chamber where you don’t question your views, and you start to think that some of your lousy arguments are really strong.

Recently an Objectivist friend of mine wrote an extremely thoughtful critique of California’s masking policies and how they harmed the children at the school he runs. But he got enormous pushback from other Objectivists precisely because it was a thoughtful critique. His sin was to not scream that masking requirements were “child abuse” and “tyranny.”

Every echo chamber, mainstream or not, rewards confirmation bias and emotional outpourings that reinforce the group’s values but tend to repel (or at least bewilder) outsiders. But non-mainstream subcultures have an added risk.

Rand’s student Leonard Peikoff used to warn: any movement outside the mainstream attracts people better than the mainstream and people worse than the mainstream. Often the people worse than the mainstream are attracted to the subculture simply because they like being outside the mainstream.

And what happens is that these people start injecting crank ideas into the echo chamber, making those ideasseem far more credible than they actually are. As David Brooks notes:

[P]eople don’t rely only on their own judgments; they think in social networks. We use informed others in our network to filter the mass of cultural products that are out there. If a highly confident member of your group thinks something is cool, you’ll be more likely to think it’s cool. If holding a certain political opinion or liking a certain band will help you fit in, you’ll probably do so. If a group of like-minded people get together, they will tend to push one another to a more extreme version of their existing views.

You might be saying to yourself, “Speak for yourself, Brooks! I’m an independent thinker.” And that’s a good attitude to have. But here’s the problem: a major reason people think of themselves as independent thinkers is because they reject mainstream ideas.

They are on guard when it comes to ideas from the culture — they let their guard down when it comes to ideas from their subculture.

So here’s the pattern. You reject the mainstream on an important issue, let’s stipulate for good reasons. You join a subculture that agrees with you, but this subculture is filled with people who are attracted to the subculture simply because it’s outside the mainstream. They feel alienated from(and want to feel superior to) the larger culture. These people inject crank ideas into the subculture until they’re normalized. You end up as a crank.

A community of thinkers

Recently I tweeted about how excited I was about the James Webb Telescope going live, and someone replied that I should check out the work of Nassim Haramein. Haramein apparently advertises himself as having a “unified field theory.” But ten minutes of googling indicated that no one in physics takes him seriously and he has no peer reviewed publications.

Now, I’m a total amateur when it comes to physics. I have no way of independently assessing Haramein’s arguments. I have no unfair advantage in physics, and so my attitude is: he’s probably a crank.

On the other hand, I’m not a climate scientist either and yet I’m entirely comfortable opposing the climate “consensus.” What’s the difference?

Mainly, it’s that I can specify my unfair advantage. The super-short version: the catastrophic climate change movement has a deeply anti-human framework. As a result, even when they get the science right, the conclusions they draw are totally wrong. And that same framework means that all-too-often, they don’t get the science right.

The larger lesson is: the ultimate unfair advantage is a solid analytic framework or methodology. If you hold to that, you can be justified in rejecting the mainstream.

Tyler Cowen makes a similar point:

No, you don’t always have to agree with the majority of the educated people, but I would say this. For whatever set of views you think is justified, try to stick to the versions of those views held by well-educated, reasonable, analytically-inclined people. You will end up smarter over time, and in better places. Peer effects are strong, including across your ideological partners.

When I hear that a particular group defends liberty, such as the Ottawa truckers’ convoy, while this is partially true it makes me nervous. As a whole, they also seem to believe a lot of nonsense and to be, in procedural terms, not exactly where I would want them on scientific method and the like. Fair numbers of them seem to hold offensive beliefs as well. Whine about The Guardian if you like, but I haven’t seen any rebuttal of this portrait of the views of their leaders. Ugh.

I recall taking a lot of heat for my 2007 critique of Ron Paul and his movement, but that example illustrates my points perfectly. Those people did defend liberty in a variety of relevant ways, but so many of them have ended up in worse spaces. And that is exactly what I predicted way back when.

Look for strong analytical abilities, and if you don’t see it, run the other way.

I want to extend this one step further. We typically build an intellectual community around shared conclusions. You’re pro-freedom? So am I! You’re anti-climate catastrophism? So am I! You find tremendous value in Ayn Rand’s philosophy? So do I!

Yet this is a major cause of how pro-freedom people become anti-vax and how pro-free speech people end up defending vile speech (not the right to engage in vile speech, but the actual ideas promulgated, say, Confederate flag-waving racists or Alex Jones-type conspiracists).

But the better approach is to build a community around shared cognitive values. I don’t mean that you forego subcultures based on shared ideas and values. What I mean is that within those communities and beyond those communities, you form alliances based on a commitment to high methodological standards.

To use an analogy: when you go to the gym, don’t focus on befriending the people who have the body you want, but on befriending the people with the work ethic you want.

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