The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken! – Oliver Cromwell

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a pretty good piece on the tyranny of the stubborn minority.

A few of the many good points: A lot of social and economic problems are complex system problems with emergent behavior, not problems of stochastic equilibrium, as economics tends to model them, like mixing inert hot and cold fluids…complex social systems have tipping points where behaviors go viral and emergent behavior emerges…stubborn minorities will make impact beyond their numbers, like a smart border collie can herd a huge flock of sheep.

It’s not always horribly unjust or maladaptive, if a few feel strongly about doing something and the rest are indifferent, to do that something.

On the other hand, if entitled people always get their way then it’s a successful strategy to act that way a lot of the time.

It goes both ways. Leaders can move the needle. Early adopters decide what everyone else adopts. But also, bad actors mess it up for everybody.

In the extreme, look at terrorists. The terrorist says, publish Mohammed cartoons, I’m going to come over and gun you down. A reasonable person (like Dave Chappelle) might tell the publishers, well I respect your right to free speech, but if you’re going to get on the A train and start yelling the N-word at people I’m going to think you’re kind of an asshole and tell you to STFU. If crazies are going to kill you, sure, I hope cops step up to protect you, but I’m also going to say, a pox on both your houses, why are you bringing the rest of us into it and putting us at risk?

Which is reasonable from my point of view, but then people are going to say I’m not committed to free speech. I’m letting a threat of violence silence a guy’s right to speech on a train. To which I’m going to say, a people can only have freedom to the extent they’re decent and not assholes. And you’re both being assholes, you can both eff off and leave me out of it. And the violent assholes win, and the non-violent assholes lose.

And the non-violent, non-assholes always tend to lose, whatever happens.

If you’re playing a game of chicken, barreling down a highway to see who will swerve later, and you really want to win, just throw the wheel out the window first and you are pretty sure to win. Reasonable always loses out to crazy in the game of who can be a bigger asshole.

The Big Lebowski is a classic movie from the Coen brothers, it’s a lot of fun to watch and you can read a lot into it if you want to. What I see is, everybody in the movie has some extreme narrative they’re living about themselves and the world, and thinks the others are on some strange trip, and their narratives interact in ludicrous ways. Except for poor straight man Steve Buscemi, who just tries to get along with everybody and constantly has to suffers their crap. That’s how I feel when I look at the world…but of course every character on their own strange trip feels the same way.

When you’re in a social game, sometimes the best strategy is the least cooperative strategy that doesn’t get everyone to gang up on you. If you’re not going to get heavily penalized, kicked out of the game, the uncooperative person wins against the cooperative people.

But society just doesn’t work if everybody is that way, so you need penalties and rewards for cooperation.

In society, that takes the form of branding, signaling, the class system. They are forms of human attention that lead to trust, or at least in-group trust. You join a religion and paint yourself as subscribing to religious principles, i.e. not being an asshole. In theory, if you break with those principles, you have a lot to lose, like going to hell, being ostracized. This lets you interact with people who think that signal is credible in a more cooperative way. Of course that creates the dominating strategy of pretending to be religious, while cooperating as little as you can get away with, being a religious asshole. Signaling works best if it’s costly and relatively irreversible, like a tattoo.

If you play Prisoner’s Dilemma once for all the marbles, then defection, i.e. screwing over your partner in crime, is the dominating strategy. If you play repeatedly for an unknown or infinite number of times, tit-for-tat may be the proper strategy. If you play twice, or by induction a known finite number of times, cooperation falls apart again and you are back to defection. A religious person may argue that therefore, a belief in eternal life, or a belief in some kind of of divine retribution, is a prerequisite for ethical behavior.

I don’t really agree with that, I tend think humans are hard-wired by evolution to co-operate, and to seek meaning, and therefore build up religious narratives to justify ethical behavior and cooperation. That hard wiring, coupled with small social sticks and carrots, makes the overwhelming majority act decently. But you need those small social sticks and carrots to make sure everyone knows where the lines are. If the incentives and game theory were all that mattered, people would be a lot less ethical than they are.

Twitter and online comments have become a tragedy of the commons, with awful folks driving out reasonable discussion. When online discussion was pretty new, and primarily educated early adopters, everything was great. As more people joined, you got adverse selection. A few assholes poison the well, and all the reasonable people leave, because who wants to argue with assholes, or expose yourself to mob attacks for minor perceived transgressions.

What Twitter, comments teach us is that if you don’t have an effective system for signaling reputation you can’t have an effective social system. Originally the signal was just being part of the elite who used Twitter. But as it grows, if the system doesn’t afford mechanisms to signal good behavior, it only rewards attention-seeking. The strategy of being an asshole dominates the strategy of being a constructive, reasonable, decent human being. In Taleb’s parlance, reputation is your skin in the game. Without it, you’re just a poser and bullshitter. And all media will be 4chan, the equivalent of bathroom graffiti.

In social systems, a small amount of bad behavior drives out the good. It’s why we can’t have nice things. I would love to believe every woman who says she was raped. The problem is that creates a dominant strategy of being an asshole: every woman gets a ‘put a man in jail’ card and can indulge a grudge by crying rape. Assholes like the UVA woman are why, unfortunately, some reputational scrutiny needs to be in place. And yeah, it sucks if you’re a righteous woman who gets assaulted for no reason, to then be subject to that scrutiny. Never mind if you’re a low status person, someone with a little reputational scratch and dent who may not be believed, a sex worker for whom the scrutiny is hurtful and costly. But assholes are why we can’t have nice things.

Personally I don’t believe an anonymous tweet is sufficient evidence to tar and feather someone. If you think that, then don’t say all online rough mob justice must be stopped…or harassment should only be stopped for people you like.

(Please don’t break out the torches and pitchforks on me for saying that. All I know about this case is that at least one person is an asshole, and don’t know which one, I’m just trying to explain the logic of both sides. Fear of mob justice shouldn’t prevent us from ever talking about anything controversial in public. We’ll never evolve that way.)

Guns. If you don’t want to have a strong reputational system where this guy who killed a neighbor can’t legally carry a gun, I think you’re an asshole. The founding fathers were smart. They knew a people could only remain free to the extent they weren’t assholes. That’s why they put ‘well-regulated’ in the second amendment.

The larger a population grows, the more assholes there are. And the more harm an individual asshole can do, the more you need a system of reputation that restricts what you can do based on past behavior.

The irony of Taleb’s excellent essay, of course, is that if you know anything about Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it’s that he is himself a stubborn minority, someone who takes pleasure at trolling the establishment, even as he claims they smear him. Criticize him, you’re an imbecile. He’s the guy who criticizes everybody, while having incredible thin skin if anybody criticizes him.

It’s OK to be a stubborn minority against a misguided tyranny, less so against reasonable people trying to figure out the truth and get along. If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.

Just because you’re brilliant and you’ve figured some stuff out, there’s no need to treat other people like imbeciles when they are honestly trying to figure it out for themselves. If you’re going to be unreasonable, you had better be really really right. Otherwise you’re just another unreasonable asshole. Even if you’re a would-be genius, a little humility goes a long way. It will make you a better thinker and make people more willing to listen. (See also Eric Falkenstein, Steven Pinker, John Horgan).

Anyway, I’m in 100% agreement with Taleb that if you want to call yourself an economist, you should think about complex system dynamics, market designs. I feel like Steve Buscemi when I hear people have strong opinions about Uber without apparently having given a moment’s thought to the dynamics of creating a 2-way market between riders and drivers, what ‘surge pricing’ should look like. A lot of times, the people who disrupt and move things forward are opinionated, entitled minorities and jerks.

Be brilliant and opinionated. Try not to be an asshole. Be excellent to each other.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. – Iconic Apple ad narrated by Richard Dreyfuss