Smart people are often strange

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

— William Shakespeare

When I pay attention to the behavior of smart, thoughtful people around me, I sometimes notice that they act strangely. Strange in the sense that most people don’t behave as they do. As an example, a friend of mine is strict about not drinking water from plastic bottles. Weird right?

I asked him why and he mentioned that microplastics are bad for the body and that plastic water bottles contain a relatively high concentration of microplastics. He also pointed out that tap water in the US is usually pretty safe to drink anyway. I had never heard of microplastics before, but this sounded fairly reasonable. So I did what any normal person would have done in my shoes: I moved on and forgot about this interaction.

A couple months later, I was at an event that handed out plastic water bottles and I recalled the conversation with my friend. After reflecting for a minute or so, I realized that it was really weird for someone to go out of their way to create a restrictive rule like “I won’t drink from plastic containers” and it was even weirder because I knew my friend was smart and thoughtful.

In times like these, noticing my own confusion is the first step for updating my models of the world. When something feels strange, it’s usually a signal that there are holes in my understanding, maybe worth investigating.

I did some research and it turns out that the effect of microplastics on human health is largely unknown, and several impressively-cited literature reviews have laid out possible paths for harm. In addition, avoiding plastic water bottles is among the best ways to prevent the digestion of microplastics—all things considered, a pretty negligible cost for reducing potential health risks.

But nobody else I know avoids drinking from plastic water bottles, and it’s not as though potential risks aren’t worth worrying about: just consider the caution around the uncertain long-term effects of the early Covid vaccines. In general, if peer-reviewed science tells me that there are potential long-term harms to my gut and cardiac health and I could avoid these risks without much cost, then obviously I’d listen. Right?

Well… not really.

Humans are stubborn about changing their beliefs, and the sad truth is that our beliefs about facts(!) are socially shaped. It’s weird to be the person who refuses to drink from plastic water bottles, it’s weird to act as though diseases are little microorganisms instead of a miasma or the devil, and it’s weird to act in principle with a personal hourly rate when nobody else does.

But living a life in line with who society thinks you should be might result in plastic toxins flooding your body. It might be the difference between achieving your dreams and not. Acting in accordance with true beliefs means ignoring social rules about acceptability. You shouldn’t shield yourself from the truth, as strange and uncomfortable though it may be, because the funny thing about the truth is that it doesn’t care about how you feel.

So the next time you notice thoughtful people doing weird things, imagine “what if they’re right”? Because very often, the people who stare uncomfortable truths in the eye are the ones who see the most clearly.