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Au Contraire October 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Last week I posted twice (here and here) about the limits of contrarians who seek publicity by going against the conventional wisdom. Both Bill Maher in his diatribes against the flu vaccine in particular and Western medicine in general, and Brownless and Lenzer, the authors of a poorly researched article in Atlantic Monthly on the effectiveness of flu vaccine, are guilty of a kind of knee jerk response to conventional wisdom on an issue that is important to people and may cause harm if not properly understood.

But the conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong, so it is worth thinking about when being a contrarian is justified.

My short answer to this question is that “hit jobs” that cast doubt on the conventional wisdom  by oversimplifying the issue are never worth our attention. The point to remember is that if a contrarian is right about some issue, it typically makes the world more complicated, not less. The conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong but it is seldom without any reason or evidence behind it. Usually, people who hold conventional beliefs, especially in the sciences and social sciences that are evidence-based, have good reasons for holding the conventional belief.

When doubt is cast on those “good reasons” we are faced with attempting to confirm the new data, weighing the actual import of the new variables, assessing whether the new variables will produce multiple effects, and separating what was right about the old view from what was wrong about it and trying to accommodate the new information with what is worth saving of the old.

This process produces reactions, counter-reactions, and uncertainty among interest groups, and in the end the radical “new” insight is seldom as revolutionary as it appeared.

What matters then is that contrarians, or people who write about them, need to stay focused on the difficult search for truth and the need for nuance rather than bold statements that succumb to the temptation to be cute, hip, and cynical. Unfortunately, they are usually looking for entertainment value or promoting an ideology. Thus, contrarians are usually misleading.

This article at The Economist.com provides lots of examples of contrarianism run amok. (The new book by the authors of Freakonomics, called Superfreakonomics, is the latest example.) But there are others:

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.

I doubt that the right has a monopoly on contrarians.

At any rate, it would be good if contrarians were devoted to encouraging people to think more. Unfortunately it is quite the opposite. To the extent they encourage us to oversimplify matters they encourage us to think less.

 

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

 

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