Second-option bias is a well-documented phenomenon among fringe and counterculture groups in which they assume that any widely-held opinion among the general population must be untrue, and therefore, the prevailing contrary opinion must be right. It could be considered a form of "hipsterism" in which it is assumed that anything popular is wrong, but the workings behind the idea are more complex.
Second-option bias is the prevailing cause of crank magnetism and is an important mechanism in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and other fields where a person feels their views and ideas are being marginalized by society.
The idea behind the second-option bias has been discussed in the skeptical and rationalist communities for many years. The particular phrase "second-option bias" has been attributed to Reddit user douglasmacarthur in the following post from August 22, 2012:
“”Reddit has a really bad case of "second option bias" where they assume the first alternative they see to the view of the culture they were raised in, or the opposite of that view, is valid instead of seeing this new info as proof the world is complex and multi-faceted. It's a kind of lazy independence where you just take the first different position you can find from your environment instead of actually educating yourself and thinking hard about ideas.
douglasmacarthur made this comment in the subreddit "circlebroke," devoted to analyzing and criticizing Reddit's fallacious or irrational behavior. The phrase immediately caught on and is now widely used throughout the site among critics of Reddit's policies and behaviors.
People who engage in the second-option bias believe themselves to be smarter than the general population. For this reason they assume the opinions of stupid people must themselves be stupid as well. Therefore, they reject out of hand any widely-held belief without actually examining the evidence to see if the belief is merited. In many cases, these people were first exposed to a single, potentially legitimate example of a widely-held belief that is actually mistaken. Rather than recognizing that not every issue has two diametrically opposed sides and could instead be nuanced, they instead assume that everything they have ever been taught is a lie and immediately begin seeking out contrary opinions to every conceivable topic. This inevitably leads to crank magnetism, historical revisionism, and sliding down the rabbit hole of conspiratorial belief.
The major fallacy of second-option bias is that, while the "first option" may be proven false, this does not automatically prove the "second option" true, except in rare situations where there really are only two outcomes to an issue. Simply proving the other person wrong isn't enough--you must also prove your own allegation is true.
Common topics and examples
See also: Red herrings in Holocaust denial
- Some Africans were responsible for selling other Africans into slavery, which means white people are actually completely innocent in the slave trade.
- The fact that some British people supported the rights of the rebelling American colonists, or the fact that some colonists opposed rebellion, is proof that the American Revolution was an illegitimate and unnecessary battle by a group of impatient whiners.
- The entire American Civil War revisionism mythology known as the Lost Cause of the South. Because the Northern states were not wholly and completely ethical in everything they did, this is proof they were just as bad as the Southerners who were fighting to keep other human beings as slaves.
- The fact that Allied forces bombed civilians makes them no better than the Nazis who intentionally massacred twelve million people because they felt they were subhuman.
- Other genocides have happened throughout history, so the Holocaust is neither interesting nor important.
- Adolf Hitler and the Nazis "got things done," so this makes them morally dubious or even commendable rather than the inhuman monsters that history has rightfully characterized them as.
- The Cold War was entirely the result of Western capitalist aggression against innocent Communist nations.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adulterer, so he was a horrible human being with no good ideas.
- Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda had legitimate criticisms about US policy in the Middle East, so this excuses or justifies their constant use of terror attacks on civilian populations.
- Science was wrong before, so people should be free to disagree with any scientific concept no matter how strong the consensus or evidence.
- Galileo was right, so scientific consensus about topics like evolution and climate change should not be trusted.
- Some scientists have minor objections to miniscule aspects of evolutionary methodology or climate change, so this is proof that there is no consensus on these issues and that we should teach the controversy.
- Thomas Edison was not solely responsible for everything he invented, which means he was a thieving hack who stole everything he ever made from Nikola Tesla.
- Some medical companies behave unethically, so this is proof that alternative medicine should be used by everyone.
- Republicans and Democrats sometimes agree on controversial issues, therefore both parties are the same and you should vote for Ron Paul.
- The media has a liberal bias, so anything Fox News says must be true.
- Some school shooters have been found to be bullied, avid video gamers, or on prescription medications, which is proof that bullying, video games, and/or medication were solely responsible for the shootings and not anything else.
- Whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, or Edward Snowden have revealed abuses of power in government while indiscriminately releasing large amounts of classified information, which means they are international heroes who did nothing wrong.
- Thanks to feminism, women are finally achieving equal status in society, which proves that feminism is actually a plot to take men's rights away.
- Laws that place restrictions on private ownership are not 100% effective, so we shouldn't bother regulating anything.
- Some people think we should have mild restrictions on free speech, which means we are living in a censored dictatorship.
- A small handful of women are found to have made false rape accusations, so the entire concept of rape is a sham and any man accused is probably innocent.
- There is difficulty determining what basis should be used for deciding the age of consent, so we should just abolish the entire practice.
Just about every conspiracy theory can be considered a form of second-option bias. In many cases, as news breaks about a major tragedy, conspiracy theorists will automatically assume it was a government false flag before any details about what happened are even confirmed. Ultimately, conspiracy theorists distrust every single thing the government says--which almost always causes them to contradict themselves, as "the government" is not a single entity with unchanging opinions. Some common examples of second-option bias leading to conspiracymongering:
- Governments have been caught committing conspiracies in the past, so this means every single conspiracy theory today is true...even the ones that contradict each other.
- Evidence such as the Downing Street memo suggests the US was eager to find an excuse to attack Iraq, so this proves George W. Bush was behind 9/11.
- There remain some unanswered questions about minor aspects of 9/11, so the entire event must have been a hoax staged by the government.
- There were some statistical errors when counting victims of the Holocaust in the 1940s and 1950s, which proves the Holocaust never happened and these mistakes were part of the botched cover-up.
- It remains unclear exactly why Lee Harvey Oswald wanted John F. Kennedy dead, so he is obviously innocent and someone else pulled the trigger.