How to Be a Smart Contrarian

I am a contrarian by nature. When I hear that all the respectable people believe X, my first instinct is not to think, “I guess X is probably true,” but rather something along the lines of “Are there any good arguments against X?” At the same time, I’m more open to contrarian ideas and more easily convinced by a good argument that challenges the conventional view. In some ways, this is a very healthy attitude: it means I am less prone to repeating popular nonsense and going along with the prevailing biases and prejudices of my environment. That means that had I been born in 1800s South Carolina, I would have been much less likely to be a virulent racist and ardent supporter of slavery. Had I grown up in Germany in the 1930s, I would in all likelihood not have been a true believer in National Socialism, and had I been born twenty years ago in North Korea, I’d almost certainly be very suspicious of the Supreme Leader.

But contrarianism comes at a steep cost. The mainstream view is very often mainstream for good reason. If most experts in a field agree on something, then it is, ceteris paribus, much more likely to be true than any particular alternative explanation. If we want to maximise our chances of being right, starting with the presumption that the experts are right is the best bet. Nor should this presumption be rashly discarded just because we find some counter argument or a possible ulterior motive for the expert consensus; after all, there are plausible-sounding counter argument to basically any position, and people are rarely motivated purely by the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, so ulterior motives abound on all sides of most contentious issues.

And even if the expert consensus on a particular topic is actually wrong, that does not mean that a particular opposing viewpoint is correct. Consider the 16th century debate on whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or vice versa. Here is a case where the standard geocentric Ptolemaic model and the contrarian heliocentric Copernican model are both wrong. While Copernicus’s central assertion of a stationary Sun at the centre of the Universe is closer to the truth than the idea of geocentrism, he got many other things wrong, such as positing circular planetary orbits. The end result was that his model actually didn’t perform any better at predicting the position of celestial objects (which in a world that hadn’t even dreamt of spaceflight was the only more or less practical use of astronomy). The danger for the contrarian back then was to be led by the flaws of the Ptolemaic system to uncritically accept the Copernican system, while overlooking its own flaws.

Looking at such a historical case has the advantage that the central facts are known and uncontroversial in retrospect (if not to the average layman, then at least to those who have studied the subject). We now know that neither the Earth nor the Sun is at the centre of the Universe, that the Earth is one of several planets that revolve around the Sun on an elliptic orbit, etc. When it comes to current controversies, things are a lot murkier since there is by definition no consensus on who is right and who is wrong. I believe there are quite a number of cases where both the standard view and the most prominent opposing point of view are wrong, but I won’t mention any examples here since they cannot adequately be dealt with in a single paragraph and deserve posts of their own.

Even more dangerous for the contrarian are cases where the consensus view is just flatly right. Consider the Holocaust for example. Hard to imagine a juicier target for a contrarian. The Nazis murdered six million Jews. Any respectable person believes it, you read about it in all the history books, and hardly a year goes by where there isn’t some new feature film portraying it in agonising detail. And to top it all off, some countries, most notably my home country of Germany, have made Holocaust denial a crime. Nor is this law a dead letter: there are currently people sitting in German jails merely for publicly stating their disagreement with the official party line on the Holocaust. Any contrarian worth his salt will be tempted by that to ask: “Do they have something to hide? Why would they resort to censorship if the case were as clear as all the respectable people claim?”

And yet the evidence actually is as clear as the mainstream view says. The Nazis did actually kill approximately six million Jews (or more precisely people classified as Jewish by the Nazis). There are countless records of these mass exterminations that the Nazis themselves kept, countless eye witness reports, photographs and video footage from the Allied soldier who liberated the concentration camps, as well as the simple fact that millions of Jews disappeared. If the Holocaust didn’t happen or the numbers were vastly exaggerated, then where did all those people go? Did they just wander off and get lost in the woods? Was there some big Jewish conspiracy to hide them away so that they could besmirch the good name of the Nazis by accusing them of genocide?

Holocaust denial is perhaps the worst and most obvious example of this danger to contrarians, but it is far from the only one. Fake moon landing, 9/11 as an inside job, chemtrails, lizard people hiding in our midst, etc. The list of conspiracy theories to choose from is long and as a contrarian it is easy to get lost in them.

At the same time, we do need contrarians as they drive forward our understanding of the world since although the consensus view is usually more likely to be correct than any particular opposing view, the consensus is nevertheless often wrong. And when you’re stuck with something like the Ptolemaic system, which worked reasonably well but did have significant problems, you need someone like a Copernicus to come along and shake things up. And although the Copernican model didn’t do any better in practical terms, it was wrong in different ways than the Ptolemaic model. By breaking up the old orthodoxy, Copernicus opened the way for others to create more accurate astronomical models, which eventually lead to the extremely detailed understanding of our solar system we have today.

The central task for the contrarian then is to identify areas where the consensus view is likely to be wrong. In terms of academic disciplines, the hard sciences and above all mathematics are areas where even the staunchest contrarian should defer to the experts. In these disciplines we have reliable ways of separating truth from falsehood, so the expert consensus is very likely to be correct. When it comes to softer fields such as sociology, economics, and history, their methodology is much less reliable because their subject matter is more complicated and it is usually not possible to conduct controlled experiments. We can still trust the expert consensus in those fields for objectively measurable facts, such as what the gender pay gap is for a particular country. But when it comes to offering reasons, interpretations, and policy proposals, we should be wary.

Another important factor is how ideologically and emotionally charged a particular topic is. Very few people are emotionally invested in whether the mathematical constant π is transcendental, so when mathematicians tell us that they have proven that this is indeed the case, we need have little fear that they fudged the proof to get the desired result or that other mathematicians kept silent about such trickery for fear of being labelled hateful anti-transcendentalists.

Fields such as history, philosophy, sociology, economics, medicine, and biology hit closer to home. Take the theory of evolution by natural selection as an example. If you’re a person of faith who believes that man was created in the image of God, you might take exception to the idea that we are just another kind of ape. Similarly, if you’re a committed egalitarian, you might be very uncomfortable with the idea of natural selection leading to biological differences between the sexes or between ethnic and racial groups. When such biases are held by small minorities, the scientific process still works as these biases are mitigated by peer review and open discussion. But when a particular ideological position is held by a majority of people in a field or a majority of the public (or even by a sizeable vocal and influential minority), researchers offering countervailing perspectives may find themselves forfeiting grant money, opportunities for advancement, or even their jobs. And when forthright criticism becomes dangerous, bad ideas spread and multiply.

A word of warning here: Just because you have identified some point where the consensus view is unreliable, does not mean that the consensus is actually false. It is perfectly possible to arrive at the correct answer through flawed reasoning. To be a smart contrarian then, requires both being selective at which orthodoxies to challenge, but also careful consideration of the facts. Above all, one must constantly be wary of one’s own biases. When it comes to bias, nothing would be easier than to notice the mote in another’s eye while ignoring the beam in one’s own.

So what I intend to do on this blog is to identify points where I believe the consensus view to be wrong and to offer alternative points of view. I will also point out areas where I think fellow contrarians have gone wrong. In addition, I shall be following Paul Krugman’s advice from his outstanding 1996 essay Ricardo’s Dangerous Idea (this was back when Krugman was an economist rather than a shill for the American Democratic Party): “one can seem to be a courageous maverick, boldly challenging the powers that be, by reciting the contents of a standard textbook.” Quite often, the consensus among the public, among the media, or the political class is completely at odds with what the actual experts in a given field believe. For the contrarian, these are low-hanging fruit and they are very much worth the picking.

Let me close by emphasising that I do not have all the answers. I try to be aware of my own biases and to correct for them, but overcoming bias is much more difficult than simply being aware of it. In that spirit, please do not take anything I say as gospel and please do hold me to a high standard. I always welcome corrections, feedback, and constructive criticism in the comments or by email.

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6 Responses to How to Be a Smart Contrarian

  1. Emma Conti says:

    Haha… So you call yourself a true contrarian yet fear exploring the simple question of what happened to building 7? Or are you actually a true contrarian masking as a quasi-contrarian to win some mainstream love? In any case, I don’t believe the building 7 hypothesis either, know what I mean?

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      So the “building 7 hypothesis” is some kind of 9/11 cospiracy theory, right? To be perfectly honest, I haven’t looked much into any of that stuff. From what little I know, the idea of 9/11 as an inside job seems very unlikely. If there is something to that theory, others are more qualified to bring out the evidence for it.

      As for whether I’m a “true contrarian”: In the two and a half weeks this site has been up, I’ve already attacked the core values of feminism, argued for legalising all forms of private discrimination, and started a series defending a fairly radical version of libertarianism (part 2 of that comes out tomorrow). Nor is that the full extent of my contrarian views. But as I’ve explained in this post, that doesn’t mean I have to be a contrarian about everything; quite often the mainstream view is in fact correct.

  2. Emma Conti says:

    Your blogged is bookmarked mate. Keep up the good work.

  3. Rafał says:

    Very interesting blog! I’ve found it thanks to the Tom Woods Podcast, and got intrigued by the name of your blog.

    I find your writings very well thought up, and the topics are fine, especially those which are not treating about libertarianism, since I’ve read much about, being a libertarian myself.

    I have a small advice: text would look better if adjusted. Keep writing!

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      Thank you! What exactly do you mean by “adjusted”? Are you talking about justified text? If so, I’ll have to think about it since there are defintely downsides to justifying text, particularly for people reading on smaller screens.

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