Whither the contrarian?
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.”
- A diagnosis of Richard Lindzen as someone who is “just an irresponsible contrarian as a matter of temperament. ”
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.
DiA at The Economist:
The first time I ever encountered an argument that I would now clearly recognise as “contrarian” was in elementary school, during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, when I first heard someone argue the supply-side case that lowering taxes would raise government revenues. Another early encounter I recall was my father describing a social scientist interviewed on NPR who’d argued that the main effect of minimum-wage laws was to raise the unemployment level for poor urban youth. And it’s been my experience ever since that contrarian arguments tend to skew rightwards. This was certainly the case during the period when contrarianism began to replace authoritative long-form pieces as the privileged genre in magazine journalism. In the ’70s and ’80s, the kings of journalism were writers like David Halberstam, Janet Malcolm, John McPhee and Tom Wolfe, who combined atmosphere, analysis, and narrative sweep. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Michael Kinsley, Andrew Sullivan, and to some extent Tina Brown began to shift the genre, and the preferred qualities turned towards the pithy, the surprising, and the pop. It’d be fascinating to write a history of the rise of contrarian journalism in the ’90s, but my milestones would certainly include Katie Roiphe’s “The Morning After” and… well, about half of everything that’s ever appeared in Slate (including pretty much all of Mickey Kaus). By the time of Stephen Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good For You”, the formula was pretty clear.
Contrarianism generally lines up with the “perversity” column in Albert Hirschman’s typology “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy“. Here’s the thing: as history progresses, things change. And societies try to adapt to those changes. Experts come up with solutions to the problems the societies face. Those solutions often entail discomfiting established interest groups. And the solutions the experts come up with almost always entail some degree of perverse counterreaction, some kinds of problems or inefficiencies or whatever. It can be very interesting to focus on those counterreactions; it can generate fascinating, eye-grabbing journalism. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the counterreactions aren’t as big as the first-order effects of the solutions. The minimum wage may price a few people out of the labour market, but it mostly raises low-income people’s wages. Raising marginal income taxes does slightly lower rich people’s incentives to generate income, but it mostly raises government revenue. In other words, the little contrarian thing is almost never anywhere near as important as the big first-order thing it rides on. And as journalism has come increasingly to focus on contrarianism, it has become less and less adept at actually describing the world.
There was a time when I encountered contrarian arguments like those made by Mr Levitt and Mr Dubner and thought, hm, that’s really cool. In recent years, when I encounter such arguments, my tendency has been to think, yeah, that’s probably a lot of hooey. If journalism is about to affect a turn away from contrarianism, it’s none too soon.
I guess I agree but I’d put things slightly differently. Contrarianism is genuinely useful, and I’d hate to see it go away. Conventional wisdom, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, deserves pushback.
The problem with modern contrarianism is that it’s lazy. Too often, it’s the sole focus of a piece, and it’s the focus for reasons purely of entertainment or ideology. Which is too bad, because the kind of journalism that’s most useful is the kind that explains both first order things and counterreactions and doesn’t pander to readers’ desires to pretend that the world is simpler than it really is. After all, counterreactions may usually be less important than first-order effects, but they’re still worth investigating. Some tax cuts really don’t raise as much revenue as you’d think. Raising the minimum wage really can have perverse effects in specific slices of the economy. If you’re genuinely interested in knowing how the world works, you want to know this.
And that’s what seems to be missing in an awful lot of modern journalism: the desire to genuinely try to puzzle out how things work. Instead, we get writing so dedicated to either ideology or entertainment that it’s satisfied to cherry pick contrarian arguments and leave it at that; or else mainstream he-said-she-said journalism that’s so determined not to take a stand that it enlightens no one.
But the world is a complicated place. It just is. There are first order effects, counterreactions to first order effects, and counterreactions to counterreactions. And there are whole big chunks of the world that stand entirely aside even from that. If you want to explain what’s really going on, you need to take in all of this, and you need to take all of it seriously on its own merits, and then you need to try to make sense of it all. You can’t just ignore or brush aside everything that would inconveniently make your narrative a little messier or harder to understand. (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell.) You have to respect your readers enough to assume they’ll stick around even when the ride gets a little bumpy.
Sadly, less and less journalism aspires to that today. To my dismay, fewer and fewer books aspire to it either. It makes the world a shallower, less interesting thing.
Speaking of bizarrely counterintuitive articles, and with the ostentatious contrarianism of Super Freakonomics still on everybody’s mind, it’s worth saying that there’s nothing contrarian about being contrarian in elite intellectual circles. Indeed, the really contrarian move would be to try to make your way as a thinker without taking aim at somebody’s sacred cows, or at least making it seem like you’re taking aim at somebody’s sacred cows. There’s a reason the book “Everything You Know Is Wrong” is not titled “Most of The Things You Know Are Right.”
The conceit behind counterintuitive articles is that the author is taking an intellectual risk. But that ceases to be true when counterintuitive articles become the norm. At that point, the author is just trying to be relevant. In fact, Jonah Weiner’s defense of Creed is one of the first self-consciously counterintuitive articles I’ve seen in some time that actually does represent some sort of risk. I mean, c’mon: Creed??
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.
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.