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I'd say that contrarian anecdotes are good if -- for instance -- the discussion spawned by the anecdote leads to a better understanding of the subject at hand. However, because anecdotes are stories we tend to remember them vividly and they affect our judgment disproportionally. Human brains are very flawed, and it may very well be the case that the negative effect of contrarian anecdotes vastly outweighs the benefit we get from the discussion it spawns. I don't know the answer. But I do know that we can't state with certainty that "having a real discussion is a good thing".

As for how we should weigh new evidence, this is essentially a solved problem: use Bayes' rule. Suppose that 100 out of 100 studies indicate that smoking is a leading cause of cancer and a contrarian viewpoint ("My grandfather smoked his whole life and lived to 123!") indicates otherwise. Then that anecdotal viewpoint should get approximately 0 weight. Zero. Nip. Zilch. Nada.

We're all experts in a few subjects at best. In those subjects we can easily explore different viewpoints, balance different arguments and keep track of the different schools of thought. We can even confidently diverge from expert consensus if needed. But in most subjects we're enthusiastic laymen at best. I don't think debates and exploration of different viewpoints then lead to much greater understanding. Just look at any forum on the internet (including this one). Debates aplenty and the few knowledgeable people get drowned out in a sea of contrarian musings.

Expert consensus is just the aggregate opinion of those who have the best understanding. So when a layman disagrees with the experts he's almost certainly wrong. What I see is the opposite of consensus culture. I see a willingness to disagree with the experts before understanding the subject material in depth.




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