A few months back, Peter Hurford made a post about weirdness points on the effective altruism forum. He argues:
Weirdness, of course, is a drawback. People take weird opinions less seriously.
The absurdity heuristic is a real bias that people — even you — have. If an idea sounds weird to you, you’re less likely to try and believe it, even if there’s overwhelming evidence. And social proof matters — if less people believe something, people will be less likely to believe it. Lastly, don’t forget the halo effect — if one part of you seems weird, the rest of you will seem weird too!
…But we can use this knowledge to our advantage. The halo effect can work in reverse — if we’re normal in many ways, our weird beliefs will seem more normal too. If we have a notion of weirdness as a kind of currency that we have a limited supply of, we can spend it wisely, without looking like a crank.
I think the idea of weirdness as a currency we have a limited supply of is not a good way to think about weirdness, and I would like to talk about why.
It is suggestive to me that most successful social movements have, well, a fair number of weird people in them. Objectivism has strange opinions on everything from altruism (bad!) to Aristotle (cool!) to roads (should be privately owned!) and an Objectivist became chairman of the Federal Reserve. Much feminist theory has been developed by communists and socialists; the concept of “intersectionality” essentially means that if you want to endorse the weird idea of gender equality then the weird ideas of anti-racism, anti-ableism, anti-poverty, and LGBT rights come as a package deal; pretty much every good feminist writer is a fat hairy dyke. Evangelical Christianity has achieved a fair amount of political power despite the existence of Quiverfull people. This could just be a correlation issue: maybe the social movements would all have managed to be even more successful if they’d dropped the not kissing until marriage, private ownership of roads, and awesome fat hairy dyke writers. But it still seems like minor evidence against weirdness points being important.
For private figures– by which I mean people who are effective altruists, but don’t write, lead a meetup, or speak to the media– I think there are two important considerations. First, weirdness is relative to your social group. Hurford mentions that “punk rocker vegans” are spending their weirdness points fighting lookism. This is true if you are a punk rocker vegan and everyone you interacts with wears khakis and plays basketball. However, most punk rocker vegans are friends with other punk rocker vegans. If they took Hurford’s advice and cleaned up and dressed in a mainstream fashion, they would be the weird ones and they would pay the price of weirdness for small benefit. Similarly, endorsing guaranteed basic income among my friends doesn’t cost me anything, because pretty much everyone thinks of GBI as a reasonable thing to advocate for.
Second, there is a legitimate concern about the effective altruism movement as a whole being perceived as a bunch of rich technolibertarian programmers. However, since we actually are a bunch of rich technolibertarian programmers, who are friends with a bunch of other rich technolibertarian programmers, if we attempt to minimize weirdness, we are going to minimize weirdness relative to, well, rich technolibertarian programmers. For instance, nowhere in Hurford’s post does he mention atheism, despite the fact that effective altruists are much, much more atheist than the general population and being perceived as anti-God makes it harder to reach out to religious people, who typically donate more to charity.
For public figures, I think it’s important to consider what your role is. People being interviewed may wish to project a We’re Normal Just Like You vibe. People leading meetup groups may want to be as neutral as possible in order to attract the widest possible variety of attendees. However, a lot of the public figures in the effective altruism movement are writers, and I suspect that– far from being a cost– being strange may actually be a benefit to writers.
Think about it. How often have you heard someone say “this writer is really original! Whenever I read them, I end up thinking about things in a new light. Even when I don’t agree, they’re always interesting”? Conversely, how often have you heard someone say “ugh, this writer keeps saying the same thing over and over again. It’s boring. I know what they’re going to write before I open the article”?
And then imagine that you mostly endorse positions that your audience already agrees with, positions that are within a standard deviation of the median position on the issue, and then you finally gather up all your cherished, saved-up weirdness points and write a passionate defense of the importance of insect suffering. How do you think your audience is going to react?
“Ugh, they used to be so normal, and then it was like they suddenly went crazy. I hope they go back to bashing the Rethuglicans soon.”
On the other hand, if you argue for weird things, you are acquiring an audience that is open-minded and interested in weird things, and they might be more likely to endorse the weird things you care most about– or at least consider them.
Finally, I’d like to talk about two last points. First, even if you endorse Hurford’s position 100%, you don’t have to stop being weird all the time. At the sex party, no one knows you’re an effective altruist. In the privacy of your own home, you should feel free to sign up for cryonics, date multiple people, and dress however you like. With some basic privacy protections, the Internet makes it easier and easier to have one identity that conserves its weirdness points and another that speculates wildly– or even multiple identities optimized for different social groups.
Second, Hurford completely fails to engage with the fact that some people can’t help but be weird. He says: “if you’re a guy wearing a dress in public, or some punk rocker vegan advocate, recognize that you’re spending your weirdness points fighting lookism.” But… not every guy wearing a dress in public (or, more crucially, everyone read as a guy wearing a dress in public) is doing it to fight lookism. It is possible to be weird for reasons other than politics. In fact, perhaps the majority of people read as men who regularly wear dresses are trans people assigned male at birth. Telling them “don’t be weird” is not saying “make slightly different fashion choices”, it’s saying “be in pain and hate your body for the rest of your life.” Similarly, dressing well and communicating in neurotypical-approved ways are harder for a lot of people with disabilities. I don’t think this discussion is complete without acknowledging that the tradeoffs are far steeper for some people than they are for others.