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You May Be a Contrarian, but That Doesn't Necessarily Make You Correct

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What does it mean to be a contrarian? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Robin Hanson, associate professor of economics at George Mason University and research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University, on Quora:

Some people, like me, tend to be especially eager to find ways that conventional wisdom could be wrong. So it makes sense for us to specialize in careers where that habit is more often rewarded. This includes many areas where innovation is important.

A problem, if we care about accuracy, is that we are likely to overestimate how often and how much conventional wisdom is wrong, at least conventional wisdoms that face enough pressure from reality to push them to be accurate. Just because we want to find mistakes doesn't mean they are there.

Now, in many areas there are in fact many mistakes in conventional wisdom, because people are not really trying that hard to be accurate there. They have other priorities when choosing conventional wisdom. Some contrarians gleefully point out these areas as a justification for their contrarian views. But the fact that others only have weak incentives for accuracy doesn't make your views more likely to be correct unless you have a substantially higher tendency to choose accuracy than they do!

This is the key problem with contrarians: a tendency to give themselves more of a benefit of the doubt regarding how much they care about accuracy. If you happen to care more about accuracy, then yes you will end up being contrarian on average. But the mere fact that you are contrarian isn't much evidence that you actually care more about accuracy, as the percentage of such folks may be quite small in most areas.

This question originally appeared on Quora. - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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