Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don’t whine. That is all

by Daniel on October 22, 2009

I like to think that I know a little bit about contrarianism. So I’m disturbed to see that people who are making roughly infinity more money than me out of the practice aren’t sticking to the unwritten rules of the game.

Viz Nathan Mhyrvold:

Once people with a strong political or ideological bent latch onto an issue, it becomes hard to have a reasonable discussion; once you’re in a political mode, the focus in the discussion changes. Everything becomes an attempt to protect territory. Evidence and logic becomes secondary, used when advantageous and discarded when expedient. What should be a rational debate becomes a personal and venal brawl.

Okay, point one. The whole idea of contrarianism is that you’re “attacking the conventional wisdom”, you’re “telling people that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down”. In other words, you’re setting out to annoy people. Now opinions may differ on whether this is a laudable thing to do – I think it’s fantastic – but if annoying people is what you’re trying to do, then you can hardly complain when annoying people is what you actually do. If you start a fight, you can hardly be surprised that you’re in a fight. It’s the definition of passive-aggression and really quite unseemly, to set out to provoke people, and then when they react passionately and defensively, to criticise them for not holding to your standards of a calm and rational debate. If Superfreakonomics wanted a calm and rational debate, this chapter would have been called something like: “Geoengineering: Issues in Relative Cost Estimation of SO2 Shielding”, and the book would have sold about five copies.

Viz also, Stephen Dubner:

They have given the impression that we are global-warming deniers of the worst sort, and that our analysis of the issue is ideological and unscientific. Most gravely, we stand accused of misrepresenting the views of one of the most respected climate scientists on the scene, whom we interviewed extensively. If everything they said was actually true, it would indeed be a damning indictment. But it’s not.

Okay, point two. The other point of contrarianism is that, if it’s well done, you assemble a whole load of points which are individually uncontroversial (or at least, solidly substantiated) and put them together to support a conclusion which is surprising and counterintuitive. In other words, the aim of the thing is the overall impression you give. Because of this, if you’re writing a contrarian piece properly, you ought to be well aware of what point it looks like you’re making, because the entire point is to make a defensible argument which strongly resembles a controversial one.

So having done this intentionally, you don’t get to complain that people have “misinterpreted” your piece by taking you to be saying exactly what you carefully constructed the argument to look like you were saying. Fair enough, you might not care to defend the controversial point it looked like you were making, but a degree of diffidence is appropriate here, because the confusion is entirely and intentionally your fault:

(That is the “global cooling” in our subtitle. If someone interprets our brief mention of the global-cooling scare of the 1970’s as an assertion of “a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling,” that feels like a willful misreading.)

No it doesn’t; it feels like someone read the first two pages for the plain meaning of the words and didn’t spot that you were actually playing a little crossword-puzzle game where the answer was “consensus”. In general, whatever “global cooling” meant, it was put on the cover in full knowledge of the impression it would give to a normal reader so once more, it is not legitimate to complain that this phrase was interpreted in the way in which it was intended to be interpreted.

In general, contrarians ought to have thick skins, because their entire raison d’etre is the giving of intellectual offence to others. So don’t whine, for heaven’s sake. Own your bullshit, like this guy.

{ 79 comments }

1

John Emerson 10.22.09 at 3:54 pm

Contrarians need love too, though.

Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge?

I’m not saying that you’re all Nazis here.

2

P O'Neill 10.22.09 at 4:16 pm

For someone with tech credentials, Myhrvold’s post is really a classic of Internet phobia. The tone is “And I would have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for you meddling bloggers”.

3

Delicious Pundit 10.22.09 at 4:20 pm

All the shitty Budweiser in the world isn’t going to make Dubner’s argument look good.

4

Richard J 10.22.09 at 4:30 pm

roughly infinity more money

I thought you got a few squid if CiF articles went into the centre column?

5

Chris Dornan 10.22.09 at 4:32 pm

Best post all day (and the Bud defence was excellent too).

They are extraordinarily thin skinned for this game, but to give them their due they have stirred up a useful debate and provoked some excellent writing.

I am really sorry that nobody seems to have taken them up on their altruism-is-illusion excerpt, as much of an offence to psychology and ethics as their chapter on global cooling was to climate science and economics. I did but it would have been nice to see someone else do it, and, better, somebody who is read.

6

Steve LaBonne 10.22.09 at 5:08 pm

I am really sorry that nobody seems to have taken them up on their altruism-is-illusion excerpt, as much of an offence to psychology and ethics as their chapter on global cooling was to climate science and economics.

Well, not just the freakzoids but Chicago economics tout court is a standing offense to psychology and ethics, and it gets kind of boring to point that out for the five thousandth time.

7

AcademicLurker 10.22.09 at 5:09 pm

“Now opinions may differ on whether this is a laudable thing to do – I think it’s fantastic”

I don’t know…in recent years I’ve become convinced that 99% of contrarianism is just an easy substitute for actually thinking.

8

Russell Arben Fox 10.22.09 at 5:29 pm

I don’t know…in recent years I’ve become convinced that 99% of contrarianism is just an easy substitute for actually thinking.

I wouldn’t say 99%, but yes, I agree: most contrarianism is as conventional a pose as anything else. The New Republic (and Slate!) proved that long ago.

9

Gareth Rees 10.22.09 at 5:42 pm

It’s a tragedy of the commons: by the nature of contrarianism, there can’t be all that many issues on which it’s really the case that Everything You’ve Ever Thought You Knew Is Wrong. A small handful of contrarians could eke out a living from this field of issues, but no-one’s thinking about sustainability (because Hey! The Need For Sustainability Is Conventional Wisdom), so an ever-multiplying herd of contrarians have over-grazed it.

10

Naadir Jeewa 10.22.09 at 5:44 pm

I think you copied that final link from the wrong browser window. Should be http://crookedtimber.org/2007/05/10/in-praise-of-budweiser-contains-extended-footnotes/ , no?

11

J. Fisher 10.22.09 at 5:50 pm

Isn’t Budweiser responsible for global warming anyway?

Daniel, hadn’t seen the beer post before (which is why I’m commenting on it here). Wonderfully contrary. However, I’ll take issue with your microbrew smackdown. I’m actually not sure how many microbrews market themselves as beers that taste like beer used to taste. Also, I’d argue that the microbrew craze parallels the ever-expanding market for “indie” movies–oh, excuse me, I mean “films”–”indie” music, and other assorted products fetishized by the hyper-educated bourgeoisie. Sure, Budweiser hasn’t caused Western civ to crumble, no more so than, say, Twisted Sister did, but at the end of the day, Smithsian jangle pop–without without IPA in tow–just goes down smoother.

12

alex 10.22.09 at 6:31 pm

J, wrong thread, head over to the one on ‘brows’…. it’s SO fun!!

13

Barry 10.22.09 at 6:33 pm

Daniel: “It’s the definition of passive-aggression …”.

I disagree – it’s quite clearly simple dishonesty. They assert something, in a deniable fashion, and then deny it when finally pinned down on it.

AcademicLurker 10.22.09 at 5:09 pm
“I don’t know…in recent years I’ve become convinced that 99% of contrarianism is just an easy substitute for actually thinking.”

Russell Arben Fox 10.22.09 at 5:29 pm

“I wouldn’t say 99%, but yes, I agree: most contrarianism is as conventional a pose as anything else. The New Republic (and Slate!) proved that long ago.”

It’s pretty close to it. My test for true vs false contrarianism is simple:

1) Do they flat-out say something? (rather than sorta assert, while preserving their deniability)

2) Do they back it up with good work?

3) Would they profit from progating lies and falsehoods?

Freaknomics, at least in chapter 5, has failed on all three counts.

14

Gareth Rees 10.22.09 at 6:45 pm

Someone’s got “lowbrow” confused with “löwenbräu”.

15

Sisi 10.22.09 at 6:59 pm

I’ve come to the conclusion that “contrarian” is what my late father would’ve called a five-dollar word* for jerk.

Virtually every “contrarian” argument I’ve seen that had any merit came down to “don’t buy the hype,” which without the posturing is simply common sense. Ah, but posturing gets attention; common sense is like listening to your mom.

*refers to “telegrams,” the remote forebear of texting and Twitter; long words cost extra.

16

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.22.09 at 7:12 pm

Contrarians should whine more.

17

politicalfootball 10.22.09 at 7:21 pm

Contrarianism isn’t provocative for the sake of provocation, but rather the sincerely held beliefs of original thinkers.

18

Jon H 10.22.09 at 7:31 pm

If they wanted to be contrarian, they could start with “Chicago economists know fuck-all about anything”, which at least be contrarian compared to their peer group.

19

dsquared 10.22.09 at 7:54 pm

I thought you got a few squid if CiF articles went into the centre column?

yes but these days they basically don’t.

in recent years I’ve become convinced that 99% of contrarianism is just an easy substitute for actually thinking

that’s exactly what’s fantastic about it!

I’m actually not sure how many microbrews market themselves as beers that taste like beer used to taste

oddly enough I was talking about this with a Big Name British Blogger tonight, as we sunk a few lowbraüs. yes you’re right; microbrews basically get over the problem of batch-consistency by making sure that every single batch tastes of hops and alcohol.

20

Barry 10.22.09 at 8:48 pm

Daniel ‘Contra’ Davies: “oddly enough I was talking about this with a Big Name British Blogger tonight, as we sunk a few lowbraüs. yes you’re right; microbrews basically get over the problem of batch-consistency by making sure that every single batch tastes of hops and alcohol.”

There’s a trick called a ‘boilermaker’ in the USA, which will take care of bad-tasting beer :)

21

John Emerson 10.22.09 at 8:57 pm

I hate to agree with Davies, but Oregon microbreweries overhop everything so much that I’m not willing to drink one I haven’t tried before. Which means that Widmer Hefeweisen is the only one I drink.

22

Steve LaBonne 10.22.09 at 9:19 pm

Yes, the macho IBU arms race is getting a bit tiresome. And I say that as one who, for example, likes Stone IPA and even, from time to time with spicy food, Arrogant Bastard. But mostly I go for Belgian-style ales and fortunately they’re not really subject to this disease, the Belgians having learned long ago that there’s far more to the taste of beer than hops.

23

Questioner 10.22.09 at 9:27 pm

I’m a bit puzzled by the Freakonomics phenomenon. It’s sold lots of books (though so did _The Closing of the American Mind_, and I doubt very many of the buyers of either book actually read much of either book) and yet it appears that many (all? Most?) of their interesting claims are either outright false or misrepresentative. Which leads me to my question: is Stephen Levitt smart? Is he a good economist? Why on earth did he get a spot at the Harvard Society of Fellows, a tenured position at the University of Chicago, and the John Bates Clark Medal? Assuming he’s just a hack and a mediocre academic rather than a serious thinker, how did this guy slip by so many filters that allegedly filter out the dummies of the world? Given the appearances, it appears as though winning the John Bates Clark Medal, Harvard Society of Fellows, etc., doesn’t mean very much.

Can anyone illuminate me on any reason to take Levitt seriously rather than to disregard him as a dishonest dummy?

24

Questioner 10.22.09 at 9:32 pm

Gareth Rees wrote, “It’s a tragedy of the commons: by the nature of contrarianism, there can’t be all that many issues on which it’s really the case that Everything You’ve Ever Thought You Knew Is Wrong.”

I don’t know that that’s true. Given that people are supposedly boundedly irrational in systematic ways, it wouldn’t shock me if much of what people believe is wrong. It’s becoming (or has become) a commonplace* in philosophy that:

(1) There is no God
(2) There is no free will
(3) Personal identity is a matter of convention rather than of fact (or, at the very least, that the commonsensical notion of personal identity is hopelessly confused)
(4) Moral claims are not in fact truth-evaluable or, if they are, then they are all false.

A lot of people–the vast majority of laypeople, I’d wager–seem to believe the denials of (1)-(4), which makes them wrong about a whole helluva lot of stuff.

Was your point, Gareth, that “by the nature of contrarianism, there can’t be all that many issues on which it’s really the case that Everything [well-educated academics] Ever Thought [they] Knew Is Wrong”?

25

John Emerson 10.22.09 at 9:49 pm

23: From what I’ve read, Levitt excels in the qualities of brightness, ingenuity, and statistical chops that are most highly valued in the economics profession, which decided some time ago that “reality”, if there is such a thing, should be ignored. By those standards he is neither a hack nor a mediocrity, but a stone genius.

26

Questioner 10.22.09 at 10:37 pm

I forgot to fill in the “*” to my comment 24.

When I say that theses (1)-(4) have become a commonplace in philosophy, I do not mean that they are the majority view (though (1) surely is, (3) probably is, and (2) is getting steadily more popular), just that they don’t shock any philosopher, and that there are a substantial number of well-known and respected philosophers who argue for (1)-(4).

27

Gareth Rees 10.22.09 at 10:47 pm

Questioner: that’s a fine collection of conventional-but-wrong wisdom, each of which I’m sure could sustain a small ecosystem of contrarians. I could add a handful to your list, but no more than that. (Also, note: the examples you’ve picked are not ones that are particularly congenial to the right-wing contrarians we were discussing.)

To spoil my joke: what I’m suggesting is that genuine contrarianism (pointing out a real error in conventional thinking) if successful, eliminates its object (eventually people no longer commit the error). Unless new errors are being introduced faster than old errors are cleared up, the pool of errors is stable or shrinking, and that means that career contrarians will be faced with the choice of continuing to comment on the same old subjects, or branching out to tackle new areas of conventional wisdom which aren’t actually in error. The latter seems to be the path taken by Levitt and Dubner. (Maybe it lies in the future for dsquared too?)

28

Questioner 10.22.09 at 10:53 pm

Daniel writes,

“[Mhyrvold writes] Once people with a strong political or ideological bent latch onto an issue, it becomes hard to have a reasonable discussion; once you’re in a political mode, the focus in the discussion changes. Everything becomes an attempt to protect territory. Evidence and logic becomes secondary, used when advantageous and discarded when expedient. What should be a rational debate becomes a personal and venal brawl.

“Okay, point one. The whole idea of contrarianism is that you’re “attacking the conventional wisdom”, you’re “telling people that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down”. In other words, you’re setting out to annoy people. Now opinions may differ on whether this is a laudable thing to do – I think it’s fantastic – but if annoying people is what you’re trying to do, then you can hardly complain when annoying people is what you actually do. If you start a fight, you can hardly be surprised that you’re in a fight. It’s the definition of passive-aggression and really quite unseemly, to set out to provoke people, and then when they react passionately and defensively, to criticise them for not holding to your standards of a calm and rational debate. If Superfreakonomics wanted a calm and rational debate, this chapter would have been called something like: “Geoengineering: Issues in Relative Cost Estimation of SO2 Shielding”, and the book would have sold about five copies.”

But is Mhyrvold really complaining just that people got annoyed with him? I got the impression from his blog that he was upset about Joe Romm getting Mhyrvold’s claims wrong. Mhyrvold writes, “In a recent series of blog posts, Romm levels one baseless, bald charge after another.” I don’t think he was complaining about people’s defensiveness per se; I think he was pointing to people’s ideology causing them to become annoyed by attacks and then misrepresenting their adversary because of their annoyance. The main problem Mhyrvold has, it seems to me, is that he’s being misrepresented.

Of course, whether he was actually misrepresented is another issue.

29

King Rat 10.22.09 at 11:10 pm

Passive-aggressive does not mean what you think it means. Being fake surprised about people being annoyed isn’t passive aggressive. Passive aggressive is not a catch-all for behavior and tactics that piss people off.

30

John Quiggin 10.22.09 at 11:27 pm

@Sisi I never knew that etymology for “five-dollar word”, and I like it a lot. Now some contrarian will come along and tell us it’s wrong, I’m sure

@23 We reviewed Freakonomics here, and most of us (Daniel was an exception who has been justified by events) thought it was pretty good. While the examples were mostly trivial, they illustrated the power of techniques that Levitt and others have applied to real economic issues. For example, in the post on school privatisation just below, we are arguing about work of this kind done by Caroline Hoxby on the benefits of charter schools (there are some problems with Hoxby’s study, but that’s not an objection to the approach as such). Where I disagreed with Levitt was his routine obeisances to the Chicago tribal deity of ‘incentives’, when most of the studies showed that incentives didn’t work in the way simple economic theory would predict. Unfortunately, at least in Chapter 5, SuperFreakonomics seems to be nothing but Chicago tribal beliefs, expressed in “contrarian” form.

31

roger 10.22.09 at 11:47 pm

John, interestingly, Brad Delong’s criticism is just the opposite – that Levitt now goes about saying you can’t ever change people’s behavior, when an incentive is just the lure to change people’s behavior. Thus the incentives that will supposedly accrue via cap and trade.

I actually think Levitt is incoherent on this subject because it really, really doesn’t interest him. He can’t stand environmentalists, who remind him of Al Gore – whose very name Levitt and Dubner think is funny, as though this were still 2001 – and he has a corner of the eye perception of global warming, surely some small storm in a teacup that, as he said to I think the guardian, half a billion dollars will about solve (the cost of geo-engineering, I think).
Now, Prostitution. Levitt is all over prostitution. Fascinated like your regular porno mook – finding any excuse to mention brothels or prostitutes. If Global warming only involved more prostititution! But unfortunately it doesn’t.

32

tom s. 10.22.09 at 11:54 pm

“They assert something, in a deniable fashion, and then deny it when finally pinned down on it.”

This is the Contrarian Two-Step, and when well executed it’s a thing of beauty. You take Step One in your titles, chapter titles, introductory paragraphs: this is where you tell peopl “that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down” and so on.

You move to Step Two deep in the middle of your chapters, where you get technical and argue that the world is, in fact, just slightly different from the way some people think it is.

The key is in the transition. Execute it badly and you fall smack on your head, but execute it well and you can spin expertly between the two steps. Someone claims you’re saying nothing new, you spin to Step One – “Your world is turned upside down! You just don’t get it!”

An opponent points out that your big claims are baseless, you shrug your shoulders in a charming manner and modestly point to a few paragraphs from the middle of your book: “That is not it at all”, you say, shaking you head wisely, “I’m just taking part in a rational and technical discussion. Why do you have to get all emotional about it? “

If you can keep your balance, you can two-step between eschatology and technical minutae all the way to the bank.

33

Salient 10.23.09 at 12:19 am

So don’t whine, for heaven’s sake. Own your bullshit, like this guy.

Or like Scott Stapp himself: “311, I am ready to fight.

Thank you for linking the Jonah Weiner essay, which contains one of the finest sentences ever written by a biped in a supporting role:

On stage, Stapp was Charlton Heston in leather pants, humping the stone tablets.

I have no idea what it means, but writing those words in that order constitutes a monolithic accomplishment for the human race. And the guy just goes on blithely writing paragraphs as if nothing just happened.

34

vivian 10.23.09 at 1:23 am

Daniel, I don’t much like hanging out at CommentIsFree (and don’t do rss) but I do like reading your articles. Especially if there is a reward to you, could CT start posting links to StuffYouWriteElsewhere on the main page? On a prominent sidebar if you’re collectively worried that it’s not interesting enough for a whole post. Cross-posting things makes it super-easy for the lazy reader like me, but what’s the blogosphere for if you can’t alert your fans and direct us to more gems. Click here and donate 5 grains of rice to the needy, that kind of thing. We’re up for it, right, gang?

35

engels 10.23.09 at 1:30 am

Unfortunately there only appear to have been two articles this year, one of which was entitled Nick Griffin in Europe? Not likely Crunching some numbers, you find that BNP support stands at less than half of what it needs to get an MEP elected

36

mart 10.23.09 at 2:11 am

Unfortunately there only appear to have been two articles this year, one of which was entitled Nick Griffin in Europe? Not likely

Did anyone else catch Question Time tonight? Griffin was (unintentionally) hilarious – I particularly liked the comeback on the KKK: “But they were the non-violent ones!”

My contrarian 2 cents5 dollars: Now that Budweiser’s become fashionable again, I’m going to be uber-cool by hating that “beer” substitute again. I call this win-win.

37

Steve 10.23.09 at 5:15 am

@#36 –

Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this, but I thought that Question Time was an embarrassment. The whole line from the pro-getting-him-on crowd was that it would be an opportunity to take down far right beliefs. Instead, in the eyes of the sort of people who would consider voting BNP, I should think that would look more like an establishment lynching. It seems far better to me to pretend these people don’t exist politically, while opposing strongly any violent action on the street, rather than playing neatly in Griffin’s victim-narrative.

38

Omega Centauri 10.23.09 at 5:20 am

31 “If Global warming only involved more prostititution!”
But one involves hotness, and the other hotties. There’s gotta be a connection somewhere.

39

dsquared 10.23.09 at 7:07 am

There is a brothel in Germany which offers discounts to customers who can prove they arrived by bicycle or public transport. The Freakonomics blog has covered the story at least twice.

(ever since that disaster of a BNP prediction, the Guardian blog has been strangely reluctant to print my stuff ;-)

40

alex 10.23.09 at 7:41 am

I don’t mean to sound contrarian, but if the telegraph service ever charged five dollars for sending a single word, it’s no wonder they don’t exist any more.

41

dsquared 10.23.09 at 7:53 am

I’d always thought the phrase was “fifty cent words”, and even that sounds a bit expensive.

42

dsquared 10.23.09 at 7:54 am

(and it is apparently impossible to resolve the question as an internet search for “fifty cent words” just basically turns up the lyrics to “get rich or die trying”)

43

bad Jim 10.23.09 at 8:39 am

The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park also offers a discount to visitors who arrive by bike or public transportation. Does the brothel have a rain forest and a lawn on the roof?

One ought to be suspicious of contrarians when they’re “politically incorrect” insofar as they take the side of industrial interests against the rest of the world. What could be less surprising than to find a fresh champion of the wealthy?

44

Marion Delgado 10.23.09 at 8:48 am

When I lived in Hungary and was traveling outside it but still in the East Bloc, I remember we still could use telegrams. They were quick, really quick, if you did them right. I don’t imagine they ever literally cost $5 even for a big word in the States.

Anyway, the way they actually worked, alex, at least for us, was that you paid BY the word, no matter HOW long. And word was defined by characters space characters. I guess in a sense it was an honor system. Anyhoozel, the girl I was dating then spoke fluent Russian, and so did I*, so I romanized my telegrams in the Hungarian style, and ran usually 2-3 words together, breaking it up with a few words left alone, so the end result looked like typical Hungarian. I can’t remember what it ended up costing that way, but given how little I was living on, it couldn’t have been more than a quarter to send a pretty long letter, and guaranteed overnight, if not earlier. Plus, Hungarian-romanized Russian is pretty private. If you did the equivalent in the US you’d probably be picked up as a spy.

*Better than my Hungarian.

45

alex 10.23.09 at 8:53 am

Clearly, it was your flagrant gaming of the system that made it uneconomic. Thanks to you, thousands of telegram-boys all round the world are starving… ;-)

46

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.23.09 at 9:43 am

In Master and Margarita a big chunk of his comedic storyline is based on exchange of telegrams. They even do money transfers by telegraph. Sometimes a telegram is referred to as “lightening”.

47

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 10.23.09 at 10:51 am

“Now, Prostitution. Levitt is all over prostitution. Fascinated like your regular porno mook – finding any excuse to mention brothels or prostitutes. If Global warming only involved more prostititution! But unfortunately it doesn’t.”

Perhaps we could pump* large quantities of prostitutes into the stratosphere by means of an 18-mile-long hose, held up by helium balloons, to get Levitt interested.

*Yes, yes, very funny. Now stop giggling.

48

ajay 10.23.09 at 10:51 am

Anyway, the way they actually worked, alex, at least for us, was that you paid BY the word, no matter HOW long.

This was generally the case – hence foreign correspondents got into the habit of writing telegraphese, things like Waugh’s famous exchange with his editor on a rumour of a British civilian nurse killed during the invasion of Ethiopia:
SEND TWO HUNDRED WORDS UPBLOWN NURSE
He replied NURSE UNUPBLOWN.

The exception was that some telegraph systems charged more for “unpronounceable” words. This is relevant for commercial code systems – if you encrypted your message and it came out as JIWUL BINOF WAGAR and so on, it would cost you less to send than one that came out as RDHTR LLVEO PAFZX. So you got cryptosystems that were designed to produce pronounceable ciphertext by alternating vowels and consonants.

49

alex 10.23.09 at 10:53 am

Very interesting, but still, the vital question is lacking – anywhere close to $5 a word, or not?

50

belle le triste 10.23.09 at 11:20 am

king rat, DD wasn’t describing the provocation as passive aggressive, he was describing the follow-up move, where a bid is made for the moral high ground by being the unruffled concern-troll — if you set out to sting a sharp reaction out of someone, then turn all “more in sorrow than in anger” about the sharpness of this reaction (or start smirking that you “murt have hit a nerve”) , this is indeed passive aggressive behaviour

51

John Emerson 10.23.09 at 11:33 am

Writers used to get paid by the woird and probably still do. Perhaps someone thought that the authos getting the most money used the fanciest words.

52

Alex 10.23.09 at 12:30 pm

I should say that at no point did I observe DD consuming even a drop of Budweiser.

53

parse 10.23.09 at 1:21 pm

I remember Langston Hughes saying that after he was paid by the line for a poem published in a magazine, he adopted the practice of substituting an additional break in each line of any poem as originally composed, having learned the value of short lines in poetry.

54

Daniel 10.23.09 at 1:52 pm

to be honest, I’ve rather gone off Budweiser.

55

Henry (not the famous one) 10.23.09 at 1:56 pm

More (probably apocryphal) telegraph stories: George Bernard Shaw, vacationing in the South of France, sent his agent a telegram asking about the premiere of his newest play. Shaw wrote “?”; his agent replied “!”

Or the time that a reporter writing a profile of Cary Grant sent him a telegram “How old Cary Grant?” To which Grant replied “Old Cary Grant fine.”

Or the telegram that General Charles Napier sent the Governor General of India upon capturing Sindh: “Peccavi.”

I would be surprised if any of these stories were actually true. I’d put my money on GBS if I had to choose one.

56

Walt 10.23.09 at 2:36 pm

After dsquared’s famous post, I went out and tried some Budweiser. It was a big disappointment. It was that day I learned the true value of contrarianism.

57

alex 10.23.09 at 2:44 pm

The Napier/Sindh one was a Punch magazine caption showing what he ought to have said, blatant acts of militaristic expansionism not actually being very popular back home in the 1840s…

58

Jimbo 10.23.09 at 3:22 pm

Questioner –

I’m curious – is it your assertion that everything that a majority of trendy philosophers believe is, ipso facto, correct? Would a majority of trendy philosophers, in fact, agree with that statement? (You can see where I’m going here, in an “All Cretans” etc sense…)

59

musical mountaineer 10.23.09 at 3:51 pm

It’s the definition of passive-aggression and really quite unseemly, to set out to provoke people, and then when they react passionately and defensively, to criticise them for not holding to your standards of a calm and rational debate.

This is…debatable.

I’ll grant this much: anyone who sets out to annoy, and succeeds, ought to fight with a grin on his face. My basic disagreement here is with the idea that the object of the contrarian is to annoy or provoke. Annoyance and provocation are inevitable effects of contrarianism, but if they are the object, then that so-called contrarian is so unserious that nobody should take the time to be annoyed or provoked.

Why does anyone, contrarian or otherwise, advance any argument at all? If he is serious, he advances the argument for its own sake, because it is something he believes and he would like to persuade others, or at least cause them to fruitfully reexamine their own beliefs. Causing annoyance doesn’t enter into his basic motivation.

Note too, that this Very Serious Person I’m talking about, comes to the argument with every bit as much reason to be annoyed as anyone else. Almost by definition, his first move in the game is to “react passionately” to what might fairly be described as others’ provocations. If under those circumstances he can muster a brave face, a cool head, and a friendly tone, he has already set a standard which his opponents ought to meet, if they themselves wish to be taken seriously.

I didn’t read your post carefully, so for all I know the specific contrarians you’re talking about do not meet such a standard, and they are in fact passive-aggressive whiners and so on. I merely say, in general, that a contrarian may have a valid and telling point when he complains that his opponents are generating more heat than light. One good rule of debating is to give as good as you get. A grown-up ought to be able to play by this rule, even (or especially) when he’s getting civility, open-mindedness, minor concessions to his pride, etc.

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Chris 10.23.09 at 5:55 pm

If Global warming only involved more prostititution! But unfortunately it doesn’t.

You know a *real* contrarian will take this as a challenge, right?

One possible connection lies in prostitution tourism — a form of regulatory arbitrage that allows the tourist/john to get laid in a jurisdiction more permissive (whether de jure or de facto) than his homeland. (Like all regulatory arbitrage, it eventually results in a race to… uh, never mind.) If the method of travel has substantial carbon impact (which it generally does), and that’s the genuine motive for the trip, then allowing the same men to patronize local prostitutes (I’ll refrain from inventing any slogans for this movement) would reduce carbon emissions and benefit the environment. Therefore, every place on Earth should legalize prostitution.

There: technically true, completely impractical, a sweeping conclusion ignoring all factors not explicitly considered, and involves prostitutes. I firmly expect it to be adopted for Freakonomics 3.

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Chris 10.23.09 at 5:57 pm

P.S. I can’t believe I missed the chance to make a pun on “carbon emissions”. Insert your own, so to speak.

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Steve LaBonne 10.23.09 at 6:01 pm

I merely say, in general, that a contrarian may have a valid and telling point when he complains that his opponents are generating more heat than light.

Indeed. The valid and telling point, however, would be merely about his/her own lack of self-awareness.

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Barry 10.23.09 at 6:11 pm

Walt 10.23.09 at 2:36 pm

“After dsquared’s famous post, I went out and tried some Budweiser. It was a big disappointment. It was that day I learned the true value of contrarianism.”

Well, once you’ve used it, be sure and send some to Levitt.

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Steve LaBonne 10.23.09 at 6:16 pm

Well, once you’ve used it, be sure and send some to Levitt.

“Le faro? C’est de la bière deux fois bu.” -Baudelaire, Amoenitates Belgicae

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Dano 10.23.09 at 6:18 pm

After dsquared’s famous post, I went out and tried some Budweiser. It was a big disappointment. It was that day I learned the true value of contrarianism.

Speaking of being contrary, the Colorado microbrews are too malty for my taste and have a slight bitter aftertaste. Give me an alarmist California-Washington state hoppy brew any day, even if it dehydrates. But surely you all will misinterpret this as whining. I’m not whining, no sir. I’m not.

Best,

D

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Mike999 10.23.09 at 11:12 pm

A simpler explanation, is that they are Prostitutes for the Oil / Coal Industry. Just another, of many, in the “journalism” profession, Bought Out by Coal Money. There ought to be a law where we can Eject Paid Prostitutes from the Profession, instead we have Rupert Murdoch and Fox “news”.

The only real question is, “How much?”

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Ben Hyde 10.23.09 at 11:56 pm

Interesting how “Once people with a strong political or ideological bent latch onto an issue, it becomes hard to …” neglects to mention those people who happen to own patent portfolios the value of which depend on the outcome of the discussion at hand.

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roger 10.24.09 at 12:05 am

After reading Levitt’s latest, I get it: it isn’t just about pissing off liberals, it is about pissing off Indians. You know, the guys in that subcontinent who depend on monsoons? Well, screw that! It’ll just be so much trouble – a trillion a year (he said, barely able to contain his laughter) to get carbon emissions down,so why not engineer the planet with sulfur particulates that will have practically no downside, save for that monsoon thing that will only kill Indians.

I’m wondering if this is for real, or if it is a Yes man spoof.

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Mike S 10.24.09 at 2:37 am

This wouldn’t even be that big of a deal except that this is definitely going to be used to give deniers a thin veneer of intellectualism, despite claims otherwise.

No matter how many times it will be debunked it will pop every now and again as one those impossible to kill zombie lies.

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Douglas Watts 10.24.09 at 3:53 am

Levitt & Dubner advocate the equivalent of dumping 1-2 Mt. Pinatubos of sulfur dioxide into the global atmosphere every year forever . What they propose dumping into the atmosphere is what causes acid rain. The amount they propose should be dumped into the atmosphere would exceed even the worst period of air pollution in the post WWII era, when entire forests in Eastern Europe were dying from acid rain and hundreds of lakes and rivers in Canada became dead and sterile from acid rain.

Their “solution” would also hasten — rather than stop — ocean acidification which could wipe out the entire marine food chain by preventing plankton from building their bodies from calcium carbonate (the ocean would be too acidic and dissolve them). No more oceanic plankton. No more coral reefs. No more oceanic food chain. The only way to stop ocean acidification (which occurs by CO2 being dissolved in seawater, lowering its pH) is to put a brake on atmospheric CO2 levels. Levitt & Dubner’s “solution” would allow CO2 levels to go up, and up, and up …

This has nothing to do with being “contrarian” — it has to do with getting all your facts wrong and omitting the rest.

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alex 10.24.09 at 10:56 am

The sooner this idea is rebranded as “global smog”, the quicker it’ll go away.

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Vicki 10.24.09 at 7:08 pm

As I heard it, the point of “Peccavi” wasn’t to save telegram charges, it was to get a message through that the English recipient would understand and that wouldn’t be understood by anyone on the other side who happened to see the message.

If you’re an English-speaker, you translate “Peccavi” as “I have [verb tense marker] sinned,” which is homophonic to “I have [possess] Sindh.” In most other languages, the perfect tense marker is not even close to the verb for “have,” and the place-name “Sindh” isn’t going to be suggested by the verb meaning “sin.”

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Wrye 10.24.09 at 7:53 pm

Every year forever, indeed.

Gwynne Dyer made the excellent point in Climate Wars, which I haven’t seen made elsewhere (though I’m sure others have made it too) that the entire reason scientists weren’t overly promoting relatively simple geoengineering ideas like atmospheric sulphur dioxide spraying or low-altitude cloud seeding (let alone second or third generation stuff like sun shields) is that they were afraid people would seize on them as a substitute for the necessary real action, rather than a temporary brake to buy a few extra years to get carbon emissions down. And since his book came out last year, articles since then – and now this book – seem to be bearing him out.

I’m not sure Levitt & Dubner’s stuff adds that much to the outright denialists’ arsenal, but it does muddy the disucssion even more, which is just not useful from an act-in-time-to-avoid-Bangladesh-going-underwater perspective.

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Wrangle 10.25.09 at 6:09 am

An essayist once wrote a list (now lost in the dimmer reaches of the net, alas) containing number of translations for terms taken from personal ads. My favorite was seeing “Let’s challenge each other’s most deeply held preconceptions” translated as “I will disrupt your life for reasons I do not fully understand.”

Then again, I may have been biased at that point, having recently broken up with a woman who could be aptly described by the phrase, “She thought she was a contrarian, but in fact she was merely disagreeable.”

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Barry 10.28.09 at 1:53 pm

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Tim Wilkinson 10.29.09 at 2:46 pm

Deft use of magic scare quotes:

The whole idea of contrarianism is that you’re “attacking the conventional wisdom”, you’re “telling people that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down”. In other words, you’re setting out to annoy people.

Compare this:
The whole idea of conspiracism is you’re “just asking questions”, or “applying scepticism to official claims” or “researching the secret state”. In other words, you [yes, you sir] are indulging a prurient taste for paranoid fantasy.

As for Mhyrvold, while opinion given under the aegis of supposed expert authority is one of very few cases in which motive-based meta-argument (crude ad hom.) is apt*, a 5-minute internet search suggests that M is not disputing received wisdom qua received wisdom (i.e. ‘being contrarian’), still less aiming to piss people off. He’s attacking solar power to promote the nuclear reactors he hopes to develop (with a little help from his friends).

Anyway, let’s assume that these people do indeed only do it to annoy, because they know it teases. Why should they (choose to) be governed by a rule that tells them to stop at the first round of annoyance, when they could annoy even more teasingly by being evasive, backtracking, whining, etc?

*Others being testimony, those who explicitly say “trust me” (or “I’m a pretty straight kind of guy”), and (to some extent) known timewasting talkers of bollocks.

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dsquared 10.29.09 at 2:54 pm

In most other languages, the perfect tense marker is not even close to the verb for “have,”

J’ai, Ich habe … ho, habia – is this right?

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chris y 10.29.09 at 3:35 pm

J’ai, Ich habe … ho, habia – is this right?

Depends if “most modern European languages” covers “most other languages”. Doubt it, me.

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Debbie R. 10.29.09 at 4:07 pm

Do you think Stephen Dubner sees himself as contrarian? I don’t. I think he sees himself as iconoclastic and smarter than others who look at things more conventionally. The fact that his chapter on global warming leads some of us to conclude that he is contrary for the sake of being contrary is not something I think he likes.

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