But What If We’re Wrong: Book Notes

Contrarianism is cool right now. But What If We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman is one of the best books that I’ve read on how to be a contrarian thinker (tied with Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile).

You can read all my book notes on my blog.

But What If We’re Wrong is a book about different ideas that are popular in society and offers a contrarian perspective on how we could be wrong about these commonly held beliefs.

As you can see, one of my longest book reviews yet. An extremely fascinating and insightful book. The kind of book where you read certain parts and you will pause and find yourself thinking, “that can’t possible be true… but what if it is…”. If you want to become a more creative thinker or think about things from a perspective you haven’t considered before I strongly recommend But What If We’re Wrong.

Peter Thiel says that it’s not enough to be contrarian, you have to be contrarian and right. I don’t know if Klosterman is necessarily “right” (and to be fair, he’s not suggesting a lot of the ideas in the book as being “right”) but I think he does an excellent job of creating a new lens on how to think about popular ideas or what I call, “generally accepted stories we tell ourselves”.

Final high-level comment about the book: Klosterman is a phenomenal writer. I usually don’t praise a writer’s writing style because I read mostly non-fiction so I focus more on writing about the contents of the book and the quality of the ideas. I focus on substance and I think I don’t appreciate style enough. But I believe in giving credit where credit is due and Klosterman is such a beautiful writer, he has this very sarcastic, dry, British sense of humor which I love so much. Here is one passage as an example:

“The ultimate failure of the United States will probably not derive from the problems we see or the conflicts we wage. It will more likely derive from our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful. Because every strength is a weakness, if given enough time.” [222]

Paul Graham says that a great way to judge the quality of an idea is by how surprising it is. A great book doesn’t tell you things you already know, its surprises you with things you didn’t know. This book might be the most densest book I have read in terms of high quality insightful and counterintuitive ideas per page, tied with Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.

The other challenge is that I already am a self-proclaimed contrarian so a lot of the “controversial” ideas he presents in this book were already known to me and seem reasonable-ish but I think the average person reading it would find a lot of the ideas mind opening. H

My guess is that the primary audience for this book can best be described on Amazon as “People who liked Malcom Gladwell will also like this book”. If you like Malcolm Gladwell’s books and Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, you will really like this book. I think if he markets this book to the Nassim Taleb/Peter Thiel crowd and keeps the core thesis of the book but tweaks it to match what wall street and silicon valley types are interested in (money, power, impact) he could actually do very well in that demographic.

My friend recently said to me: “Tomiwa, I look at you and I feel like you have too much entropy”. Which I interpreted to mean that I am doing too many random things. I am trying to get more focused in my pursuits but this book doesn’t help me do that. It presents a lot of various, unrelated ideas together. It’s okay because I think books like this which expose you to different contrarian ideas, make you a creative thinkers which is arguably more important.

  • When I found out that the auther, Chuck Klosterman founded Grantland with Bill Simmons.

I tweeted “Bill Simmons is the Quincy Jones of Sports Journalism and probably media in general.”

  • Chuck Klosterman, Jalen Rose, Jonathan Tjarks. And Grantland and The Ringer are both excellent media companies

What Makes Good Art?

  • “There’s a basic human reason for this simplification: It’s difficult to cope with the infinite variety of the past, and so we apply filters and settle on a few famous names” [74]
  • What we consider great music from the past is simply what a few passionate fans decided to keep records of. [83]
  • Music critique today is inextricably linked to the personality of the person making the music [78]
  • He interviews Ted Gioia (he interviews a lot of very smart people for this book btw) a historian known for good books on jazz and the Delta Blues. Ted Gioia says: “My predicition: edgy hip-hop music will win the fame game in the long run, while EDM will be seen as another mindless dance craze.”[79]
  • I then start to imagine older music historians writing academic papers about Kanye West and the postmodernism interpretation on the genius of Lil Wayne
  • Paradox about greatness, if you ask most people who the greatest architect is they will say Frank Lloyd Wright, the only people who would disagree are those who know a lot about architecture [91]

“Normal humans don’t possess enough information to nominate alternative possibilities. And what emerges from that social condition is an insane kind of logic: Frank Lloyd Wright is indisputably the greatest architect of the twentieth century, and the only people who’d potentially disagree with that assertion are those who legitimately understand the question. History is defined by people who don’t really understand what they are defining.” [91]

  • Writes like Paul Graham, the following passage sounds like something Paul Graham would write:

“But I know these imperative perspectives have no origin in my own brain. The first time I ever heard Frank Lloyd Wright’s name, I was being told he was brilliant, which means the first time I looked at a building he designed, I thought either, “That is what brilliance looks like,” or “This is what everyone else recognizes as brilliance… [91] [tk take picture]

It reads a lot like Taste for Makers or What is Art essays by Paul Graham

He follows this up with a great example

“I believe all architeuctre should aspire to be in harmony with it’s habitat because (a) it seems like a good line of reasoning, and (b) that was Wright’s line of reasoning. Yet I am certain -certain- that if I had learned that Wright had instead pioneered the concept of “inorganic architecutre” [and architucture should not be in harmony with it’s habitat]… not only would I agree with those thoughts, but I would actively see that philosophy, fully alive within his work (even if the buildings he designed were exactly the same as they are now) [92]

  • Very interesting discussion about what type of art will “age the best” or be remembered the best by history
  • We are bad at picking which type of art will be relevant in the future SPIN did Albums of the Year List and The Colophon did which writers would be canonical at the turn of the twenty-first century. Both lists are largely forgotten now.
  • SPIN did Album of the year list for 27 years, The only list people remember is when SPIN picked teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque over Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana [92]
  • Reminds me of when I received my Spotify Wrapped List on artists of the Decade. Which of my most listened to artists will be the most recognized in the future [tk link Spotify Wrapped Tweet]
  • I wonder if algorithms can pick better art than say Spotify playlist editors. I wonder if Spotify playlist editors worry about their job security?
  • How about Dave Chapelle? How will history remember him?
  • Interesting passage about subjective facts being overturned in history. Like someone who is considered currently a great president, history realizes that actually that person wasn’t a great president. [96] Everyone agrees this is possible in theory but once you give an example of such a person, people start scoffing.
  • I like how he defines subjective facts: “A resonable person expects subjective facts to be overturned, because subjective facts are not facts; they’re just well-considered opinions, helpd by multiple people at the same time.” [96]

Being Right and Wrong About Science

  • Interviews Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “I will add that in 1603 the microscope was invented, and in 1609 the telescope was invented. So these things gave us tools to replace our own senses, because our own senses are quite feeble when it comes to recording objective reality…I can establish an objective truth that’s not a function of my state of mind, and you can do a different experiment and come up with the same result” [100]
  • “This is all accurate, and I would never directly contradict anything Neil deGrasse Tyson says, because compared to Neil deGrasse Tyson-my skull is a bag of hammers. I’m the functional equivalent of an idiot. But maybe it takes an idiot to pose this non-idiotic question: How do we know we’re not currently living in our own version of the year 1599” [100]
  • Fascinating look at Brian Greene’s Multiverse theory. I skipped this section because it sounds like a random theory that anyone can just hypothesize. Perhaps the same can be said about Nick Bostrom’s simulation theory, but in my opinion, Bostrom’s theory seems a lot more logical.[102]
  • Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ssays that basically everyone “believes all the same things for long stretches of time, only to have the entire collective worldview altered by a paradigm shift transforming the entire system.”[114]
  • Looking at it that way, science is no different from liberal arts. Not quite sure I agree but I understand the spirit of the arguement
  • Pretty cool that he mentions Nick Bostrom’s simulation theory [121], I can’t believe more people don’t talk about this
  • Apparently this build’s off of Hans Moravec’s work, (pretty cool that Morvec did his Masters in Computer Science at my alma mater, Western University) [121]
  • If someone asks you, what is something you believe that most people don’t. I would say that Nick Bostrom’s simulation theory is a very underestimated theory that I expect to become more popular within the next 5 years
  • Funny story about two people having a “beer conversation” about the meaning of life and if God exists. A 3rd person walks in says they are both wrong. That “It turns out our moral compass comes from neither God nor ourselves. It comes from Brenda. Brenda is a middle-aged computer engineer living in the year 2750, and she designed the simulation that currentl contains all three of their prefab lives”[127]

Sudden Death Over Time

  • Malcolm Gladwell gave a talk and at the end said: “In twenty-five years no one in America will play football and no one in America will eat red meat” [178] The implication being that football is violent and causes concussions etc.
  • Then he explains how two things could happen:

People stop playing team sports in general. The idea is that if sports is just escapism and entertainment it could get replaced by video games and CGI virtual reality. For example, the NCAA college Football bowl games:

When Boling Green played South Alabama in the Camellia Bowl, 20,056 fans were in the stadium but 1.2 million people watched it online. [192] This means that the games should actually be optimized for the TV viewers not the live audience. You could actually end up, playing games in the future in a giant television studio. Especially when you consider that playing Fantasy Football and gambling on games is more popular than watching the actual football games and Vidoe Game industry generates more money than Music and Movies combined [tk add source].

He says this so beautifully [typs and mistakes are my own]

This, obviously, is not something that could (or would happen overnight). It would take decades and multiple generations, and it would require our current socioeconomic arc to remain unchanged (which, as I’ve now latently stated countless times, almost never happens). It also denies the long-held assumption that physical games are a natural manifestation for a species that is fundamentally competitive, and that team sports are simply adult versions of the same impulse that prompts any two five-year-olds to race the playground in order to see who’s faster”

“I mentioned this theory to a friend who works for ESPN, he thought about it for a long time before saying, “I guess I just can’t imagine a world where sports don’t exist. It would seem like a totally different world. Well, he’s right. It would be a totally different world. But different worlds are created all the time, and the world we’re currently building does not reasonably intersect with the darker realities of team sports. We want a pain-free world where everyone is the same, even if they are not. That can’t happen if we’re still jeeping score” [193]

Why does it matter if the people playing the sports are real people?

  • Roseanne was a revolutionary TV show, it’s cast members were overweight which is more statistically realistic, and the weight issue was rarely discussed,
  • “It was in many ways an inverted mirror of The Cosby Show: If the Cosby Show was an attempt to show that black families weren’t necessarily poor and underprivilegedm Roseanne was an attempt to show how white families weren’t necessarily rich and functional” [174]
  • More Roseanne details: key interpersonal conversations happened in kitchen, laundry room, garage, the house looked Chaotic and unfinished , [174]
  • While reading his writing I feel like he would be very popular in the Less Wrong community, a lot of passages that follow a pattern of: “I think X is true. Why do I think X is true? Maybe I’m completely wrong about X being true” for example page [175]

He spends an entire chapter proposing a theory then says: “So what does this mean?.. I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m not satisfied with what my conclusion says about the nature of realism. But I know this matters.” [175] [tk take a picture and tag Julia Gaelf, Yudkowsky, other lesswrong people on twitter]

But What If We’re Right?

  • Then he talks about what if “this is it” what if everything we have learned about the world and we have reach The End of Science, as written by John Horgan [223]
  • Consider me doubtful of this theory but it is fun to think about
  • Interesting theory about how older generations valued memory and being able to remember things [230]
  • Maybe that’s why when debating things with my parents they dislike when I always pull up Google, they believe merits of an arguement should be decided by what each person remembers on their own
  • Bah Humbug I say. I for one welcome our new robot overlords.
  • Revisionist history.
  • History changes : Dave Barry writes about revisionism as it relates to American civil war [233]
  • At first, he was told the war was caused by slavery, then economic factors, then “acculturalized regionalism”, then slavery again
  • Klosterman, humorously and cleverly connects this with how it matched Barry’s career. He was considered a comedic genius, won a Pullitzer prize then was considered less funny, then when he dies he will be considered a comedic genius
  • Scott Adams, has an interesting take on this relating to how history rewrites itself and offers it as proof of the simulation theory
  • #Relatable story: “It must be terrifying to view the world from the perspective that most people are wrong, and to think that every standard belief is a form of dogma, and assume that reality is not real” [237]
  • I feel like that is how most people would react if I told them some of my life philosophies, at first it can be a bit nihilist and depressing but then it actually becomes liberating and joyful. Life is a game. Play the game well, have fun, help others.
  • Why do people cling to irrational beliefs, because it’s comforting. “If 90 percent of life is inscrutable, we need to embrace the 10 percent that seems forthright, lest we feel like life is a cruel, unmanageable joke. This is the root of naive realism. It’s not so much an intellectual failing as an emotional sanctuary from existential despaair.” [239]
  • He mentions why he didn’t talk about climate change: “Accepting the existence of climate change while questioning its consequence is seen as both an unsophisticated denial of the scientific commnity and a blind acceptance of the non-scientific status quo. Nobody on either side wants to hear this, because this is something people really, really need to feel right about, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the weather” [241]
  • I’m surprised there was no mention of Jonathan Haidt in the book. I even checked the index, nothing. The Coddling of the American Mind and The Righteous Mind seem like they would have been relevant and an interview with haidt would have had some interesting perspectives.
  • “There’s a phraise I constantly notice on the interent, particularly after my wife pointed out how incessant it has become. The phraise is, “You’re doing it wrong”. Klosterman continues: “Whenever you see something defining itself…, as opposed to generating one’s own” [242]
  • Reminds me of when I googled Paul Graham inequality and the 2-4th hits were all “Paul Grama is wrong and here’s why
  • The McLauglin group is literally peak OK Boomer [248]
  • I’m always curious why people are so Obstinate. Here’s an interesting quote: “We spend our lives learning many things,… (Whether we like it or not)/” [428] [tk finish quote]
  • What if animals are smarter than humans. Veterinarian Vint Virga thinks that gorillas are more emotionally intelligent than humans
  • So if we increasingly value emotional intelligence instead of IQ then that could mean that gorillas are superior to humans (this is a bit tongue in cheek, I think)
  • Makes a funny joke about how it doesn;t really change anything because we humans will still continue living life as usual, we are not about to elect a gorilla to Congress becuase it is more emotionally intelligence
  • but actually, after writing that, I feel like if gorillas are more EQ than humans presumably they should be given some degree of decision making power

As you can see, one of my longest book reviews yet. An extremely fascinating and insightful book. The kind of book where you read certain parts and you will pause and find yourself thinking, “that can’t possible be true… but what if it is…”. If you want to become a more creative thinker or think about things from a perspective you haven’t considered before I strongly recommend But What If We’re Wrong.