Leaving the Bikeshed

There's a lot of contrarianism in college, and I think it's because agreeing seems lazy. When you don't challenge something, one's liable to think you haven't thought it through. After all, scholarship is about critical thinking—falsifying hypotheses and questioning authority; you hear academics saying all the time that doubt is the foundation of intellectual progress. And since college students like to sound smart (I would know), it's no wonder they tend to err on the side of negativity.

I think that's how "the cynical college student" became such a cliché. When kids are finally allowed (and encouraged) to think for themselves, they jump from too much "yes" to too much "no"; they get wrapped up in the sound of skepticism instead of its substance.

It's the same kind of thing when two grad students, arguing some difficult philosophy, walk into a coffee shop hoping to be overheard. Or when you steer a conversation to familiar ground so that you can speak with authority. Or when someone tilts an impressive book so passersby can see the cover.

It's nice to think of how learned you are, to hear yourself picking points apart, opining with casual confidence. It's also easy, and that's what makes it dangerous. Do it enough and you start to think you actually know something; instead of tirelessly hunting for reasons you may be wrong, you wallow in your rightness. You get comfortable with weak ideas. And there's nothing more poisonous than comfort, at least to the critical mind.

This is why communities scare me. No matter how fragmented, they always have their mores, their shared preoccupations and quirks. It's easy to get sucked in: you learn what works, how to get attention. There's no need to think anymore. You learn to love the group for what it is: your personal confirmation pit, intellectual theater with lots of audience participation.

Maybe the worst part is that this kind of masturbation can be so rewarding—online, they even give you points for it! So there are often really strong incentives—social self-consciousness and ego, mostly—to fuel the fire, to pump out easy ideas that are well-received.

And the ideas are usually easy, because hard problems require hard work. Not everyone can have an opinion about something technically difficult, but we can all fight for days about what to call it (the color of the bikeshed phenomenon). So that's what you get, vociferous battles over the names of things.

Really what we should all do is push our egos aside and toil nobly, in the name of nothing but the hard-fought prize of truth. Or, at the very least, we should be wary of our own assertions, of the company we keep and their priorities; we should be afraid to get comfortable and embrace the right kind of doubt—not showy skepticism but its bolder cousin, independence. We should have no allies, no easy audiences and no safe ideas.