If you kick an anthill, don’t whine about getting bit

Rules for Contrarians: 1. Don’t whine. That is all:
[Via Crooked Timber]

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.


Being truly contrary is a lot of work, something these guys seem to have missed. If you actually misrepresent what people say and believe, you should not be to surprised if they come back hard.

And if you try to go up against something with a lot of factual data behind it, you had better get your facts straight. Their apparent approach to being contrary – where they take a conventional wisdom and reflexively say it is not true, gee whiz, darn it – reminded me of this other exercise in taking a contrary position:

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