Believing in magic pyramids

Unconventional thinkers might be wrong, but can be really right.
Cover image for the article Believing in magic pyramids

This week I moved to Bonn. My new landlord, Jenno, had left lots of his stuff in the house. Because of this, I spent my first night sleeping next to a large glass pyramid; a bowling ball filled with gold that counteracts the earth's "geopathic stress"; and two salt crystal lights that glow orange.1

My initial reaction was to joke about the magical bowling ball that Jenno had left. But, actually, his stuff shows an admirable quality: he is an independent thinker. He believes things that most people don't believe, which many people would criticise him or mock him for believing in.

Looking at the "archtypes of godhood" poster that was sellotaped to the wall, I thought about how at any point in human history, most people in the present society: a) think that the commonly held beliefs are true, and b) many of the things that the previous generation thought were obviously wrong.

For example, nowadays most people think: how could previous generations have been so stupid not to realise that smoking / not wearing seatbelts / asbestos / environmental destruction / burning fossil fuels / slavery were so bad.

The follow-up thought is: if I had lived at that time, I would have realised how wrong most people's beliefs were.

Maybe that's true.2 This reminds me of the the Cross study where 94% of teachers rated themselves as above average teachers. And the Svenson study where 93% of polled US drivers said that they were a better than average driver.

The power of group influence is also strong. The Asch conformity experiments provided a nice example of this. A person (who was being tested) came into a room with a group of people (who were actors). Everyone was shown four lines on a board. One line was clearly longer than the others. The examiners asked each person to say which line he or she thought was the longest.

75% of the time, the person being tested agreed with the clearly wrong suggestion that the majority of the group suggested. Only 25% of the time did the person disagree with the group.

Thinking unconventionally

To have radical ideas, you need to think in an unconventional way. For instance, Isaac Newton spent time on both physics and alchemy. Both ideas probably seemed equally stupid to most people at the time. They were wrong, Newton was right.

Newton needed to ignore this popular inertia against unconventional thoughts. Thinking unconventionally requires you not to care about other people thinking that your ideas are wrong. Unconventional thinkers will probably be wrong most of the time, but they have the chance to be really right where others are currently wrong.

Here's a test to consider if you think unconventionally.3 Ask yourself: what beliefs would you be hesitant to share with some of your friends?

  1. This is probably because everyone likes to think of themselves and their thoughts as unique.
  2. The mixture of stuff also included 3 cabinets and a fridge shelf full of supplements and alternative medicine potions, as well as A4 paper runes under the beds and on all electronic devices.
  3. As Paul Graham suggested in his essay: How to think for yourself