March 2022 Meetup: When to Believe Smart Outsiders

For our next meetup, we will be discussing when we should believe smart outsiders who make claims that go against expert consensus in a different field.

Recent global events have provided lots of examples of people making claims that contradict “the experts.” In some salient cases, these claims have turned out to be correct. Simultaneously, we have seen contrarian and conspiratorial takes flourish. And, to further complicate matters, there are several contrarian and conspiratorial thinkers who have been extremely wrong about most things but occasionally very early and correct about other things.

So, how much should we believe takes from smart outsiders when they go against expert consensus? When are people with non-subject matter expertise believable? How do we filter information from high variance individuals who are often wrong but occasionally ground-breakingly correct?

Is this really just Robin Hanson’s “elites” vs “experts” framing — where smart outsiders are sometimes able to identify when true “experts” are correct even when the “elites” in their field have a different opinion?

Or, do we have a different way of weighting the believability of outsider takes?

Some examples and possible jumping off points from the Rationalist-adjacent internet:

•Balaji’s January 2020 thread on Covid:

twitter profile avatarBalaji SrinivasanTwitter LogoTwitter Logo@balajisGoing viral What if this coronavirus is the pandemic that public health people have been warning about for years? It would accelerate many pre-existing trends. – border closures – nationalism – social isolation – preppers – remote work – face masks – distrust in governmentsJanuary 30th 20202,238Retweets11,236Likes

•Zeynep on a wide variety of Covid topics:

•Zvi’s weekly Covid updates:

•Ross Douthat’s conversation with Yascha Mounk about chronic Lyme disease:

•Alex Tabarrok on the FDA:

•Last month’s meetup topic — Slime Mold Time Mold on alternative theories of obesity:

Other examples:

•Freeman Dyson made numerous contributions to academic physics and was a professor, but did not have a Ph.D. He also had controversial, non-consensus views on climate change:

•Martine Rothblatt cofounded Sirius satellite radio, then founded a drug/biotech company to treat her daughter’s rare heart condition based upon shelved drug research:

•Michael Lewis’s book “The Premonition” focuses on specific scientists, doctors, and public health officials who were doing “good” work on Covid and largely fighting the inept and sclerotic FDA, CDC, and WHO. Is this the correct narrative?

•Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize winning chemist, advocated for high-dose vitamin C treatment for many diseases (that is largely viewed as ineffective):

•James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA, has some opinions on race: