The Importance of Being Earnest: How Superfreakonomics killed contrarianism

by John Quiggin on October 18, 2009

I missed out on the book title contest a while back, so here’s my entry. As regards earnestness, i’m riffing off Andrew Gelman, via Kieran, who observes “”pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest?”

The main point, though, is that the fuss over the global cooling chapter in Levitt and Dubner’s new book is the first occasion, I think, where the refutation of specific errors has taken a back seat (partly because, in this case, it’s so easy) to an attack on contrarianism, as such. The general point is that contrarianism is a cheap way of allowing ideological hacks to think of themselves as fearless, independent thinkers, while never challenging (in fact reinforcing) the status quo. Here’s Krugman and Joe Romm, for example

I can certainly remember that I was once positively disposed to contrarianism. Trawling through the blog records, I can find

  • A mixed review of Christopher Hitchens (on our side then), Letters to a Young Contrarian. If memory serves, I had a more favorable view of contrarianism, and Hitchens, before reading the book than after.
  • A reference to “The worst kind of contrarian: That is, one who makes great play with contradictions in the conventional wisdom, does not put forward a coherent alternative, but nonetheless makes authoritative-sounding pronouncements on public policy.”

To sum up my current view: “contrarianism” is mostly contrary to reality, the “conventional wisdom” is probably wiser than the typical unconventional alternative, and “politically incorrect” views are almost always incorrect in every way: literally, scientifically and morally.

{ 67 comments }

1

Barry 10.18.09 at 1:10 pm

Another way to put it is that 90% of the ‘contrarianism’ one encounters is ‘comfort the comfortable, afflict the afflicted, serve power and kick the weak, all while patting oneself on the back for being brave’.

Formerly known as being a lickspittle.

2

Salient 10.18.09 at 1:41 pm

the “conventional wisdom” is probably wiser than the typical unconventional alternative

Wow, what a thing to wake up to on a Sunday morning.

Wish I lived in a country whose body politic enabled me to say this with a straight face. Of course, I get what you mean; it’s just that your conventional wisdoms are generally deemed “unconventional alternatives” (and untenable ones, at that) in the US.

Since the CW around here is poisonous, I guess the rule of thumb for Americans has to be something more like ‘go by how well the assertion aligns with a compassionate regard for every human in the world as a thinking and feeling being.’

3

novakant 10.18.09 at 1:49 pm

So in turn, “politically correct” views are almost always correct in every way: literally, scientifically and morally – huh?

Without further investigation into what these views are and who exactly defines what counts as “conventional wisdom” or “politically correct”, that strikes me as a rather dangerous and self-defeating statement in ways.

4

novakant 10.18.09 at 1:50 pm

erm, “in many ways”

5

Substance McGravitas 10.18.09 at 1:54 pm

Given a choice between a contrarian position and conventional wisdom – without knowledge of the subject matter – you’d choose?

6

novakant 10.18.09 at 2:00 pm

“without knowledge of the subject matter” – I wouldn’t choose any position at all. I didn’t spend the better part of a decade at university developing my critical thinking skills and whatnot to end up saying that the majority is always right or something along those lines.

7

The Raven 10.18.09 at 2:05 pm

Now me, I thought the reason pissing off conservatives isn’t fun is because it’s too easy, and some of them shoot back.

More seriously there’s an aspect of “Isn’t it fun to do the wrong thing?” It’s the sort of desire which most people outgrow in young adulthood. & it bespeaks something darker: you hominids have blown it badly, a lot of you know it, and a lot of you really, really, really don’t want to think about it.

8

Substance McGravitas 10.18.09 at 2:06 pm

I wouldn’t choose any position at all.

My question was directed at the original post.

9

zic 10.18.09 at 2:13 pm

I agree, except for one thing.

Conventional wisdom used to hold the Earth was flat.

CW is a shifty thing; it changes as we learn. And frequently, we learn from the contrarians.

10

Sam C 10.18.09 at 2:29 pm

‘Conventional wisdom used to hold the Earth was flat.’

Actually, no it didn’t. The Earth has been known to be (near) spherical for at least the last few thousand years; only a few isolated cranks have believed otherwise. [/pedantry]

11

Sam C 10.18.09 at 2:30 pm

Perhaps I should add: conventional wisdom holds that conventional wisdom used to hold that the Earth was flat.

But presumably JQ meant something rather richer than ‘the kind of thing people tell one another at the bar’ by ‘conventional wisdom’?

12

Jotham Parsons 10.18.09 at 2:35 pm

Oh for God’s sake, “zic.” Conventional wisdom hasn’t held that the Earth is flat for 2,300 years, give or take. Back when it did, it was a reasonably well-founded conventional wisdom, and non-specialists who challenged it would almost certainly have gone even further astray. And when Christopher Columbus challenged the conventional wisdom on thecircumference of the Earth, he turned out to be dead wrong, and he and his men were only saved from a horrible death by thirst in the middle of the Ocean Sea by the entirely unpredictable appearance of previously-unsuspected landmasses. The whole episode very much proves JQ’s point.

13

bob mcmanus 10.18.09 at 2:48 pm

“How to piss off a conservative?”

Tell an Australian economist he isn’t really a liberal or progressive (but can take comfort in not being a reactionary.)

Maybe you need to re-examine your approach to the book. I have been seeing some of this kind of thing recently, some of the saltwater economists (e.g. DeLong & Krugman) have been trying to say something like the freshwater economists were really not in the mainstream after all, their “treasury view” response to the financial crisis reveals them as a heterodox fringe we just hadn’t recognized as such.

IOW, maybe moving the Overton Window or creating a new “conventional wisdom” is most politically powerful when it is done invisibly. We have always been at war with Oceania. Now if it is the case that the attempted changes to the consensus are best sold as a return to those best old ideas we had really held all along, but has somehow forgotten (“Adam Smith, not Bentham was right about usury! We need ro revisit Malthus on the general glut!” then contrarianism is about process, not substance.

14

aaron 10.18.09 at 2:49 pm

I wonder whether there’s also a particular reason why American conservatives think contrarianism is such a basically right approach: if conservativism is a nostalgic desire to return to the glory days and to the original state of things, then (this is Louis Hartz’s argument way back in ’55), American conservativism is in the weird position of wanting to return to a hallowed originary moment where the glorified great white fathers were all radical revolutionaries. You see the same thing leading up to the civil war: the white supremacists were the revolutionaries, while the forces fighting for the status quo were the liberals. Since so mjuch of modern conservativism is still fighting the civil war, I wonder whether this dynamic still informs the ethos on some level.

15

bob mcmanus 10.18.09 at 3:01 pm

Or maybe I need to re-read Kuhn or Lakatos.

Kuhn says paradigms only become abandoned when the old guys die off, but do the old abandoned paradigms ever really disappear? If the conventional response to paradigm crisis is reaction (Hey! “New” Institutional Economics) then the contrarian might be the main source of actual progress.

16

Kaveh 10.18.09 at 3:30 pm

Do people who prove the Earth actually revolves around the sun generally call themselves contrarians, or are they generally categorized that way by their opponents, or is “contrarian” a category they are all lumped into by people who want to justify their bass-ackwards ideas with the fact that *sometimes* conventional wisdom is wrong?

Another take on “‘contrarian’ ideas that turn out to be right” is that the “contrarian” merely looked harder and more earnestly into the same facts everybody else agrees on, and concluded that they add up to something substantially different from what most people thought.

17

Kaveh 10.18.09 at 3:47 pm

@14
the contrarian might be the main source of actual progress

Well, what’s so great about paradigm shifts, anyway? Even Kuhn acknowledges that they only happen after a lot of contrary evidence builds up. And even then, isn’t it the case that theoretical models are changed all the time, and only a few of those changes are memorable enough to be called “paradigm shifts”? I suspect that which of those changes get classified as “paradigm shifts” is somewhat arbitrary, or a better way to put this is, it has more to do with the cultural world of the science historian than the thought processes of the scientists who developed the new theories.

18

alex 10.18.09 at 4:19 pm

“Conventional wisdom”, in areas where there is actual evidence-based science at issue, is always provisional. That’s one of its good points. OTOH, professional “contrarians”, and I always think of Brendan O’Neill in the UK at this point, seem to earn a good living explaining why the prevailing critique of powerful groups/organisations ought to be rethought, and that the good of humanity would be better served by letting them get on with what they are doing free from such irritating scrutiny. As if that critique itself was more powerful and dangerous than the groups currently irritated by it, and as if a robust defence of the status quo would obliterate its faults from everyone’s minds. Such people appear to serve as active agents for the prevention of democratic scrutiny and policy change, while loudly proclaiming themselves to be the servants of a higher and nobler form of democracy.

But then I got banned twice from Comment is Free for saying that O’Neill was a shill for big business, so what do I know?

19

Tim Worstall 10.18.09 at 4:24 pm

“and “politically incorrect” views are almost always incorrect in every way: literally, scientifically and morally.”

Eh? I can think of a whole heap of what *were* politically incorrect views that turned out to be entirely correct, literally, scientifically and morally. Anything from the continents float around on lava to the idea that buggery shouldn’t be anything to do with the law.

Given that it would be a tad hubristic to assume that we’ve reached the point where all of our currently politically correct ideas are indeed correct, wouldn’t it?

For example, one very much politically correct idea these days is that the response to climate change should be more localisation, more regionalisation of the economy.

Which not only appears wrong scientifically (for any given level of emissions trade will provide greater wealth than not trade: for any given level of wealth trade will produce fewer emissions than not trade both on the assumption that we are pricing carbon emissions which I’m pretty sure everyone is agreed that we’re going to) it’s directly contrary to the assumptions made by the IPCC themselves in the economic models that they feed into the whole process.

20

Marc 10.18.09 at 4:48 pm

It matters that, at least in the USA, the “contrarianism” which sells always tends to favor the wealthy and entrenched interests, or always seems to be justifying irresponsible and selfish behavior.

Our body of scientific theories really have been built up to explain a complicated web of data, and virtually all challenges to these theories end up reducing to the “conventional wisdom” under the proper circumstances. Newtonian physics works amazingly well in the limit of weak acceleration and low velocity, for example. The people piously invoking Galileo tend to badly misunderstand how science works and how scientific progress is made. In particular, you must subject new ideas to relentless scrutiny – as severe as that given to the standard theories – rather than shielding them from rigor by decrying “political correctness”. Because the only way that they can become incorporated into the new conventional wisdom is precisely to stand up against the inherent skepticism of the scientific method.

21

kid bitzer 10.18.09 at 5:02 pm

sometimes there are several conventional wisdoms at once.

e.g. on climate change: it’s cw among the villagers (george will, broder, republican leaders) that climate change is a hoax or at least overblown and in doubt.

it’s cw among scientists that it’s real and huge.

i’m not going truth-relativist on you–i think the second cw is correct, and the first is full of it.

but i am asking what point there is in affirming the cw against the contras when multiple cws point in opposite directions.

(and in the history of post-war contrarianism, hasn’t much of it sprung from the fact the sciences and learning in general often support a progressive position, whereas the political cw has wanted to push a reactionary line? contrarianism in this sense is part of the republican war on science. but republicans have certainly controlled a lot of the nation’s cw, too).

22

Kaveh 10.18.09 at 6:19 pm

It seems like a given that people who tout their own contrarianness are doing so to disguise the fact that they are supporting some CW.

I think what Hitchens and pseudoskeptics have in common is that they are in favor of some conventional practice, which is contrary to conventional wisdom–”conventional practice” meaning something a lot of people do, such as wasting energy or being sexist. If you are offering up something genuinely new, like a heliocentric model of the universe or plate tectonics, you probably don’t want to draw attention to how contrarian that idea is, you want to emphasize the ways in which it agrees with CW.

23

alex 10.18.09 at 6:33 pm

@21: but that’s to use ‘contrarian’ simply to mean ‘in disagreement with’, and further to claim that presentation of theories which offer a better fit to the observed data could be ‘contrarian’. If there is solid data, even if capable of several readings, it’s not ‘contrarian’ to propose that one of those readings is a better fit. It would be contrarian to suggest that the evidence should be set aside in favour of a different kind of explanation altogether, because of some factor which had nothing to do with either the evidence to hand or the problem it was collected to resolve. If you want people to take a new viewpoint seriously, you can’t make the case for it by shouting, “Look, over there, a monkey!”

24

Kaveh 10.18.09 at 6:55 pm

@22 By contrarian(ness) (as opposed to contrary/contrariness) I meant that one touts one’s own tendency to disagree with CW as an abstract thing (as opposed to disagreeing with particular positions that happen to be CW). People might not spell it out so explicitly, but I think that is what causes us to note that someone is a contrarian, when they signal… basically, that.

It would be contrarian to suggest that the evidence should be set aside in favour of a different kind of explanation altogether, because of some factor which had nothing to do with either the evidence to hand or the problem it was collected to resolve.

That’s what I was trying to say in my last sentence.

To put this in the terms I was using–CW vs conventional practice–Hitch might say “Look, over there, a monkey! And hey, aren’t we all a little bit sexist when you really think about it?” Though he’s a little smoother than that.

25

John Quiggin 10.18.09 at 9:01 pm

@Bob McManus
‘“How to piss off a conservative?”

Tell an Australian economist he isn’t really a liberal or progressive’

Certainly, I get pissed off by the kind of American parochialism that assumes an Australian would use these self-descriptions. But, I guess it’s hard for Americans, whatever their own self-description, to avoid the habits of an imperial power.

On your substantive point, my thoughts are here

26

John Quiggin 10.18.09 at 9:18 pm

@Novakant (#3) AFAIK, the only way in which the term “politically correct” is used favorably these days is to mean “opposed to the use of ‘politically incorrect’ as a cover for racism etc”, as in the locution “If it’s politically correct to reject racism (or rightwing pseudoscience, or bogus arguments for pro-rich policies) then call me politically correct.” Here’s Will Hutton. So, if you want to be counter-contrarian, you could make the point by saying “If a factual or ethical claim is labelled as politically correct, it’s probably correct”.

27

John Hagel 10.18.09 at 9:18 pm

Now, the cynic might be inclined to say that for many of our beloved pundits, contrarianism is to be celebrated when the other party is in power and conventional wisdom is to be embraced when their party is in power. Or, am I missing something?

28

Alan Peakall 10.18.09 at 10:12 pm

I am fond of the formulation that “good contrarianism is the immune system of the public sphere, bad contrarianism is its auto-immune disease”.

29

tired of blogs 10.18.09 at 10:13 pm

To agree with Kevah (#23), self-professed contrarians remind me of fans of “alternative” music back in the late 80s (and I was one of them). Alternative was in fact practically mainstream, but the alternative crowd made a fetish of being different from the norm. I think it’s hard to be an honest self-described iconoclast/gadfly/contrarian unless it’s mainly other people who think of you that way and not just you putting on a pose.

30

Kaveh 10.18.09 at 11:32 pm

@27 I think the battle lines around contrarianism/CW as abstracts were pretty much the same during the Bush years. I’m not sure if there’s a specific point when it became popular for conservatives to be contrarian in order to pretend to be unconventional, but I think it was this way in the 90s.

31

Aulus Gellius 10.18.09 at 11:46 pm

Maybe no one’s pointing this out because it’s so obvious, but can we at least MENTION that saying things like “contrarians are really mostly slavish, cowardly, defenders of the status quo, closed-minded, etc.” is just another bit of contrarianism, and not the least simplistic and self-indulgent of them?

32

Mark Liberman 10.18.09 at 11:48 pm

The role of contrarianism in essay grading deserves some thought. Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys focuses on the idea that in answering examination questions, “the wrong end of the stick is the right one”. In his memoir Untold Stories, Bennett describes his own discovery that the route to an Oxford scholarship was “the alternative journalism of a lowlier sort”, which attracts interest of graders bored with mere competence by “turning a question on its head”.

Bennett describes his Finals at Oxford as “the last and most significant examination in my life, and it was in this examination that I cheated, just as I had cheated a few years before to get the scholarship that took me to Oxford in the first place.”

“I was not dishonest; I kept to the rules and didn’t crib, and nobody else would have called it cheating, then or now, but it has always seemed so to me. False pretences, anyway.”

33

steven 10.19.09 at 12:38 am

#24—

Hitch might say “Look, over there, a monkey! And hey, aren’t we all a little bit sexist when you really think about it?” Though he’s a little smoother than that.

Not that much smoother, I fear.

34

Geoff Robinson 10.19.09 at 1:05 am

2 factors here: 1. a cult of being ‘tough-minded’ and shocking think Richard Posner or Georges Sorel (John Anderson in Australia), 2. a perception that the world is just a seminar room/parliamentary chamber or a chat in a pub rather than actually consisting of real flesh and blood people who are affected by your views (also applicable to some allegedly radical activists evaluating pathological behavior)

35

Patrick 10.19.09 at 2:27 am

To sum up my current view: “contrarianism” is mostly contrary to reality, the “conventional wisdom” is probably wiser than the typical unconventional alternative, and “politically incorrect” views are almost always incorrect in every way: literally, scientifically and morally.

When did you become a conservative? Couldn’t a similar argument be said for why homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, or being against euthanasia or some other traditional conservative value? Isn’t their particular argument qua society as a whole is that it’s not the individual mores that matter, but rather their collective essence contains larger wisdom that is dangerous to throw out, that one must ‘stand athwart history, yelling Stop’.

You’re making an argument that I doubt you’d make anywhere else. The problem is not that contrarians are wrong, they on a whole have a slight statistical edge, but rather in this case the authors are trolling. Not only are they trolling they are doing a terrible job of it. Trolling environmentalism requires finesse and skill, and the work they did would have been OK, maybe in 1999 or 2004, but in 2009? It indicates they are out of touch with how difficult a topic they were approaching and just what kind of alarms they would set off.

Troll harder guys. Troll harder.

36

Kenny Easwaran 10.19.09 at 2:52 am

When he says ““politically incorrect” views are almost always incorrect in every way: literally, scientifically and morally.” that certainly doesn’t commit him to saying that “politically correct” views are correct in every way. A perfectly natural reading of the claim is that in order to reach the minimum bar of being “politically correct”, a view should be correct in some way, either literally, scientifically, or morally, or perhaps some other way. The views that improve on the politically correct views tend not to be advertised as “politically incorrect” – it’s only the views that want to reject the one aspect of the politically correct that happens to be actually correct that go around being advertised as “politically incorrect”.

(For instance, for the “political correctness” of affirmative action in college admissions, nobody calls it “politically incorrect” to say that we should spend more money on improving the educational system for poor black people – they reserve the label “politically incorrect” for the view that we should merely ignore the problems that the actual educational system causes for many black people.)

37

Omega Centauri 10.19.09 at 3:30 am

Alan @28, I love that quote.
I think that generally there is likely a socially optimal level of contrarianism. It should be somewhat rare. But, given that fame is in such high demand, and infamy provides many of the same economic benefits to the holder of it, it is inevitable that many will strive to stand out from the crowd. That is hard to do with CW, but the strategy of outrageous anti-CW is obvious, and apparently at least somewhat sucessful. I think it is a little like contrarianism as an investing strategy, the benefits of taking a unique position, and being right are large, and can be worth the low probability of actually being right.

38

Witt 10.19.09 at 3:32 am

Contrarian in its modern context seems to mean something more like “reactionary.” The contrarian label is often trotted out when somebody wants to reaffirm an existing value, such as “Children really need two opposite-sex, married parents” or “It is in young teenagers’ best interest not to have sex.” These are very often social conservative values, and they are also often *not* a minority view, at least in their weaker forms.

Yet the schtick of a reactionary is to position him or herself as the neutral third party, who has freshly examined the data and come — shakes head sadly — to the conclusion that people of one ethnic group really *are* smarter. Or whatever loathsome claim they want to put forward. I’m thinking of William Saletan as the prototypical example, with David Brooks a close second.

It was only about ten years ago that Christopher Hitchens was actually exhibiting a more legitimate (IMO) type of contrarianism. His Mother Teresa takedown was, IIRC, foulmouthed, gratuitously mean, and petty, but also factually accurate and truly revisionist in terms of shifting the public image of her to date.

That type of contrarianism seems basically gone now. Jay Rosen has written incisively about two values widely held by the media, which I think have aided in the growth of contrarians-as-reactionaries: the cult of savviness and the interest in conflict. (Sorry, no links, but it’s late here.)

39

roger 10.19.09 at 4:51 am

I am puzzled why the Freakonomics column, which is wildly mendacious and rightwing to the max, hadn’t long ago undercut the Levitt-Dubner reputation. These are the great defenders of WSJ’s lucky ducky thesis – that the Bush years were years of greater equality, due to the cheaper tat the poor could get at Walmart. Contrarianism, meet Fox News.

A good example of the shiftiness verging on dishonesty of Dubner is available on the blog at the moment. One need only read Dubner’s column about how the climate is “cooling” – which will make those “religious” climate warming people froth at the mouth! – with his evidence, which is a chart showing, duh, that the 2000s were the warmest decade on record, and that 1998 was a temperature spike, which hasn’t been repeated. There is no climate model I know of that would predict that temperatures would climb the way 1998 climbed over 1997. Dubner knows this. And he also knows that the chart at the basis of his dig in the ribs to those “liberals” actually says the opposite of what he says it says:. Compare Dubner here: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/15/a-headline-that-will-make-global-warming-activists-apoplectic/

With the numbers, here:
http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climatechange/policymakers/policy/slowdown.html

If the phrase, which Dubner quotes without correcting, isn’t almost childishly dishonest, then simply give up the science of statistics:
“For the last 11 years we have not observed any increase in global temperatures.”

Of course, Dubner always pre-empts his dishonesty by predicting that people – those environmentalists – will try to “drown him out.”

So, what possible reason do we have for respecting this man as an intellectual? I’m curious.

40

novakant 10.19.09 at 9:04 am

it’s only the views that want to reject the one aspect of the politically correct that happens to be actually correct that go around being advertised as “politically incorrect”.

Sorry, but that’s another sweeping statement which in this form is simply, erm, incorrect. There are tons of contradictions and ambiguities in the current corpus of “politically correct”, mainstream views and some of them are very hard or even impossible to reconcile, e.g. multicultural tolerance vs. women’s rights, environmental policies vs. the economic interests of the working class or pornography/prostitution vs. certain types of feminism.

The “left/liberals” have been struggling with or actually split into factions because of such contradictions since the late 60s. I’m actually “to the left” of the “liberal mainstream” on many, many issues, but also “to the right” on a few in as much as such labels can be meaningful. Papering over such contradictions and proclaiming a common consensus that simply isn’t there, if you bother to get into the details, strikes me as rather unproductive.

41

alex 10.19.09 at 9:37 am

Indeed, but proclaiming that there is such a consensus, and you’re agin it, is equally so; which gets us rather back to where we started. I still think ‘contrarian’ is a label that adds nothing to an understanding of the dynamics of political debate, except when it comes in handy for dismissing cynical shills.

42

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.19.09 at 9:56 am

Of course there is a common consensus, and of course it’s self-contradictory. Pointing out these contradictions is politically incorrect and contrarian.

43

Tim Wilkinson 10.19.09 at 10:52 am

Long ago I decided that green fruit are probably more tasty than red fruit. So I don’t eat red fruit, and green fruit do indeed seem for the most part to be at least moderately tasty, so I’m very happy with my decision. And some red fruit is poisonous, and I can’t stand the Wimbledon crowd. I think that has adequately refuted the doctrine of rubifructarianism, the sole alternative to my stance (don’t say ‘posture’).

I think I’ll use the same method for choosing sides in the great ‘are conspiracy theories true?’ debate. It’s the only way to decide it because both the paid-up shills and the frivolously-paranoid loners seem to have some evidence on their side. But I need to decide because otherwise I’d have to go through the tiresome process of evaluating evidence, and/or admit that I’m not in a position to adopt a firm opinion (which, incidentally, would make me a paranoid loner, by the conspiracy theory ‘one drop’ rule.)

It’s very handy to have a method of abstract nonsense that can be applied to areas outside maths. I _think_ the irony of that name survives the transition to the realm of politics/morality/general facts about medium-sized dry goods. I’m not sure yet – I’ll need to see what the conventional (or contrarian – I haven’t tossed for that yet) wisdom says about it.

44

novakant 10.19.09 at 11:14 am

Indeed, but proclaiming that there is such a consensus, and you’re agin it, is equally so; which gets us rather back to where we started.

That would be correct if I was against the consensus, just because it happens to be the consensus. If that were the case, you would be well within your rights to call me a contrarian or, which amounts to the same thing, an egocentric crank.

But that’s not my nature or general position, nor is it what I’m arguing for here. We only get thrown back to square one, if we stay at this vague meta-level and sort people into categories according to their position relative to the consensus. What I’m trying to say is that this meta-level might be useful in identifying certain individuals who have sociopathic tendencies (Hitchens et al), but it is totally useless and counterproductive if we apply it to characterize the discourse as a whole and all its participants. Instead it is imperative to take a look at each specific position, to employ the principle of charity and let the dialectical process run its course.

45

John Emerson 10.19.09 at 11:25 am

So in turn, “politically correct” views are almost always correct in every way: literally, scientifically and morally – huh? Without further investigation into what these views are and who exactly defines what counts as “conventional wisdom” or “politically correct”, that strikes me as a rather dangerous and self-defeating statement in ways.

See, Quiggin is being contrarian. And you’re being conventional. Wake up and smell the coffee!

Contrarians remind me of the cute, nasty British conservatives: Belloc, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Waugh. “Saying the opposite” for effect, which they learned from Algernon and Ernest in Wilde’s play, is a big part of their game.

Samuel Butler may be the Ur-contrarian. He seems to have been less implicated in nastiness than Chesterton et al.

46

Tim Wilkinson 10.19.09 at 11:34 am

Shorter me: novakant’s last two sentences.

47

alex 10.19.09 at 3:08 pm

Aren’t we all in agreement, then, that “contrarian” is basically a pointless term? Except, of course, for the contrarians…

48

The Fool 10.19.09 at 4:05 pm

Its not hard to figure out why for some people its more fun to piss off liberals than conservatives. So-called “conservatives” these days primarily defend the rich, which is to say that they are part of and strong supporters of the prevailing power structure. It is simply far less risky and more rewarding to piss off the less powerful than the powerful. Hence the contrarians can pretend to be independent thinkers while objectively being the most craven bootlickers on the block.

Think back to high school. Which was more fun: pissing off the jocks or pissing off the dorky small guys? Pissing off the jocks can lead to having one’s head immersed in swirling toilet water. Pissing off the dorky guys can deflect the abuse away from oneself and onto the dorky scapegoats.

49

Walt 10.19.09 at 4:18 pm

“Contrarianism” is useless as a term to evaluate a position, but it’s clearly a personality type.

50

Sebastian 10.19.09 at 4:19 pm

Since this whole thread got started with a mischaracterization of the Freakonomics position which is somehow becoming the wrong conventional wisdom, isn’t that umm I don’t even know, something.

It kind of illuminates part of the problem with analyzing “conventional wisdom” as such: it contains lots of parts, some of which are true and some of which aren’t or might not be.

In this example we have the following bits of conventional wisdom about global climate change:

1. That we are experiencing a long term warming trend–very likely to be true.
2. That human activity is a significant cause of this–very likely to be true.
3. That it is likely to be an enormous problem if unchecked–very likely to be true, though somewhat less certain than the first.
4. That the best way of dealing with it is to dramatically reduce carbon output (and for most without utilizing nuclear energy but maybe that isn’t quite CW)–somewhat likely to be true but MUCH less certain than the first 3.

There are people who try to dispute 1 and 2, and for the most part they seem to be scientific cranks. 3 is probably the best bet of warming denialists, but is still pretty unlikely. The best answer for 3 is that it isn’t worth the risks. But 4 isn’t the same thing at all.

What seems to be happening in the discussion of Superfreakonomics is that people who contest 4 are being treated as if they are contesting 1 or 2. But questions surrounding 4 don’t have the same actual strength supporting the conventional wisdom that 1 and 2 have.

But you are treating it all as one big lump of CW. As if “CW on global warming” had equally strong empirical backing for every possible question pertaining to global warming.

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JM 10.19.09 at 5:14 pm

What seems to be happening in the discussion of Superfreakonomics is that people who contest 4 are being treated as if they are contesting 1 or 2

ahem

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Steve LaBonne 10.19.09 at 5:32 pm

Yeah, Sebastian, it’s just so hard to understand why anyone would object to a claim that removing the known cause of a problem isn’t the best way to address the problem.

Get your head out, seriously. CO2 IS the problem, and drastically reducing CO2 emissions is the only viable solution. I’m afraid it really is that simple (and that enormously challenging). Nobody ever said life is fair, and the laws of physics certainly aren’t. They don’t bend for economic or political convenience or for ideology.

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belle le triste 10.19.09 at 5:43 pm

I don’t know about the others but Chesterton got his dialectics from Carlyle who got em straight from Hegel himself: style from Wilde maybe, but you wouldn’t want to get THAT from Hegel, even second-hand.

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michael e sullivan 10.19.09 at 6:14 pm

Sebastian at 50, one of the problems with your analysis is that most of the people today contesting Q4 who call themselves contrarians, were busying contesting 1 until the evidence was well past conclusive, then contesting 2, until the evidence was well past conclusive, followed by whole-heartedly contesting 3 for as long as they could get media play, and finally now that each of those has become impossible, is now contesting 4, the one question on which there is still a whisker of a question.

But the problem is this — you simply cannot come to a useful convincing conclusion if you start by looking for a particular answer. Because unless the question is as settled as the laws of thermodynamics, you can always find *some* evidence of some almost certainly wrong position, or *some* problem with the currently accepted position. If you start with an obvious bias, and seek only evidence to confim your bias, you will almost certainly find something.

Basicallly, I have no reason to give *any* significant weight to the conclusions re: Q4 of people who were very busy arguing strenuously against the scientific consensus on the first 3 questions right up until those were considered so settled that it became hard to get media play outside of right-wing radio and fox news, or anyone with two neurons to to rub together to pay attention to you anymore. Those folks have demonstrated that they are primarily out to confirm their biases.

Levitt and Dubner in particular may not have weighed in about Q1-3, but the people they are getting their “evidence” from (with the exception of some they have misquoted and mischaracterized in a blatant fashion) certainly fall into the community of denialists who have continually stayed just this side of advocating belief in perpetual motion machines by shifting to a less settled question at the last possible second.

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engels 10.19.09 at 6:14 pm

Contrarian means being contrary, disagreeing without (what would usually be regarded as) sufficient motive, playing ‘devil’s advocate’. Sometimes this is a spur to thought, sometimes just a waste of time. It depends on how well it is done and perhaps whether or not one senses a further, undisclosed motive behind it. I would guess that most people who have spent a lot of time on the internet, especially on Crooked Timber, have less patience for it than they might do because the time-wasting kind is so ever present here.

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Sebastian 10.19.09 at 6:34 pm

“Basicallly, I have no reason to give any significant weight to the conclusions re: Q4 of people who were very busy arguing strenuously against the scientific consensus on the first 3 questions right up until those were considered so settled that it became hard to get media play outside of right-wing radio and fox news, or anyone with two neurons to to rub together to pay attention to you anymore. Those folks have demonstrated that they are primarily out to confirm their biases.”

Which is NOT Levitt and Dubner.

“Levitt and Dubner in particular may not have weighed in about Q1-3, but the people they are getting their “evidence” from (with the exception of some they have misquoted and mischaracterized in a blatant fashion) certainly fall into the community of denialists who have continually stayed just this side of advocating belief in perpetual motion machines by shifting to a less settled question at the last possible second.”

Which is not accurate. They quote people who are investigating technological means of inducing cooling specifically to counteract global warming. That isn’t 1-3 denialists at all. And the argument against it isn’t on the order of perpetual motion machines at all. It is an argument about costs and side-effects–exactly the same as with directly reducing carbon output.

(See for example the heavy resistance to nuclear power as a medium-term remedy. The argument isn’t that it wouldn’t reduce carbon output. Clearly it would. The argument is that nuclear power is otherwise too scary such that it outweighs the obvious carbon output difference that is available.)

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Chris 10.19.09 at 8:16 pm

CO2 IS the problem, and drastically reducing CO2 emissions is the only viable solution.

This sounds a little a priori (the second half, that is). In theory we could also find or create carbon sinks that would allow CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere faster than it is added (until we reach the status quo ante, at which point we switch to “as fast as it is added” and maintain equilibrium). Of course making this not require more energy than we got from the CO2 in the first place will be a neat trick, but since there are already solar-powered CO2 fixers (i.e. plants and algae) there might be some way to grow, chemically separate (if we want to avoid burying useful phosphates, nitrates, or other non-CO2 materials in plant matter) and bury biomass. (And/or create fossil-like fuels from biomass, which would allow them to later be burned for no net carbon cycle effect.)

AFAIK research on these ideas is already underway, I don’t see why you would dismiss it a priori.

(Unless of course you meant “reducing net CO2 emissions” and just didn’t say so.)

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Steve LaBonne 10.19.09 at 8:21 pm

Unless of course you meant “reducing net CO2 emissions” and just didn’t say so.

I did, actually, since logically that’s what is required. But I do also happen to think carbon sequestration on the required scale is pure pie in the sky. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but at the moment there’s nothing remotely resembling even a laboratory proof of principle for anything that could possibly be done on the required scale, within the required time frame, and without massive unintended consequences. And we don’t have time for decades of research and further decades of implementation.

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Tim Wilkinson 10.19.09 at 9:21 pm

_“Contrarianism” is useless as a term to evaluate a position, but it’s clearly a personality type._

No it’s not.

Sorry. It’s a compulsion – having the character of duty – mirthlessly to perform certain obvious gags. The ritual observance of formalistic humour encodes, and to a limited degree sublimates, despair, grim stoicism and the recognition of a shared doom to remaining alive in dreadful absurdity. But I’ve said far too much already. How (rive) gauche. Sorry chaps, load of bollocks, carry on.

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John Emerson 10.19.09 at 11:13 pm

Belle, I’ve always thought he was ripping off Seneca, who I’ve only read in translation.

Regarding contrarians, you might divide the group into successful contrarians who make good money at it, and loser contrarians who bash their heads against walls. The former are certainly to be suspected of being opportunists, lickspittles, sycophants, lackeys, running dogs, renegades, and so on. The rest of us are just self-defeating and deliberately annoying.

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Xanthippas 10.19.09 at 11:37 pm

Well okay, but what exactly are us contrarians supposed to do when knee-jerk contrarianism goes out of style? Contrariansim comes in for its (fair) share of bashing, but I generally find that if a large group of similarly disposed people agree on something they’re usually wrong.

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jdkbrown 10.20.09 at 12:45 am

Sebastian,

Tim Lambert managed to check off five squares of his denialist bingo card when reading Levitt and Dubner. Have a look at

http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2009/10/why_everything_in_superfreakon.php

to get a sense of how badly they mangle the science. They even manage to mischaracterize the position of the scientists they rely on for support.

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engels 10.20.09 at 1:36 am

When I look on the internet all the definitions of ‘contrarian’ I can find say it means either ‘thinks differently from the majority’ or ‘is able to think differently from the majority’, and the references to it are mostly positive, as involving independence of mind, etc. But I’d always used to mean ‘enjoys disagreeing’ or ‘disagrees for the sake of it’ (something which is not necessarily admirable but not necessarily to be condemned either).

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Peter K. 10.20.09 at 2:42 pm

“When I look on the internet all the definitions of ‘contrarian’ I can find say it means either ‘thinks differently from the majority’ or ‘is able to think differently from the majority’, and the references to it are mostly positive, as involving independence of mind, etc. But I’d always used to mean ‘enjoys disagreeing’ or ‘disagrees for the sake of it’ (something which is not necessarily admirable but not necessarily to be condemned either).”

Yes, Quiggin want to commit some rhetorical violence and insist that Superfreakonomics – which I loath – equals contrarianism, and therefore erase contrarianism from polite society. For me contrarianism depends on the context so I disagree with Quiggin. There’s “good” contrarianism and “bad” contrarianism. Sometimes a contrarian is just a jerk. Sometimes they’re a truthteller who, say, put their job in jeopardy.

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belle le triste 10.20.09 at 3:25 pm

Oh, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr Seneca right here. Come over here for a second…

… oh wait, the Latin for “queue” is going to be p3nis, isn’t it? This awesome borrowed gag having become totally unmanageable, I shall concede to your erudition, John. But Carlyle and Hegel are also both in there: and nasty or no, Chesterton is a great writer.

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John Emerson 10.21.09 at 11:17 am

Belle, all those guys, the less you know about them the better you like them.

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estetik 10.27.09 at 9:34 am

I think I’ll use the same method for choosing sides in the great ‘are conspiracy theories true?’ debate.

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