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Word for Wednesday: contrarian

March 31st, 2004

At the suggestion of James Farrell, I’m reviving this regular feature, beginning with a word I’ve used critically on a couple of recent occasions. The following is an extract from my review of Cristopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian You can read the whole thing, including a review of Mark Lilla’s Misadventures of Reckless Minds here

Of all the awkward squad, none is more awkward than Christopher Hitchens. His recent Letters to a Young Contrarian sets out his credo

Hitchens reflects both the best and the worst of the Socratic gadfly. On the one hand, there is the temptation to cynical sneering and the desire to epater le bourgeois. It is almost impossible for a contrarian to avoid this temptation completely, particular since it is often necessary to treat the conventional wisdom with derision. Hitchens himself concedes that he is particularly prone to this vice, noting that ‘a beloved friend once confided to me that my lip — I think he said the upper one — often has a ludicrious and sneering look, and my wife added that it takes on this appearance just when I seem to be least aware of it’. This unattractive tendency also mars the writing of Gore Vidal, whose contribution to the blurb of Unacknowledged Legislators nominates Hitchens as his ‘successor, inheritor, dauphin or delfino.’. But anyone who contributes more to the public debate than reiteration of one of other of Orwell’s ‘smelly orthodoxies’ will recognise this fault in themselves to some extent or other.

A more serious version of the same fault is found in the tendency to pursue intellectual vendettas. One does not need to be an admirer of Bill Clinton to feel that Hitchens’ attacks on him (and Hillary) went way over the top. Clinton may have been venal and sleazy, but he was far from being America’s worst president and he ended up on the right side of most of the issues Hitchens cares about, notably including Bosnia and Kosovo.

On the other hand, the great Socratic virtue is the unwillingness to accept easy answers. Hitchens rightly denounces, for example, the evasions with which many supposed advocates of free speech responded to the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The same insistence on hard truths, is evident in a fascinating essay, originally presented as a Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, defending George Orwell against the attacks made on him Williams. Since Hitchens clearly admires both men, it would have been easy for him, not to mention his audience, to pass over this topic in a few sentences, and devote his time to aspects of Williams’ work for which he felt more sympathy.

The popularity in Australia and elsewhere of the term ‘pseudo-intellectual’ echoes the ancient frustration of the Athenian courts that condemned Socrates. Like the Athenian demos, the talkback commentators of today are aware that intellectuals are important, and are keen to find examples of the genus worthy of their respect. All that they want in return is that they should not be asked to think.

Socrates would have been a pain to live with, and it is difficult not to feel that his allegedly shrewish wife Xantippe had the worst of the bargain. Nevertheless, as these books show, we need Socratic gadflies to protect us both from bourgeois complacency and from the pretensions of Platonic philosopher-kings.

Coming out of this, I have a question as to the best collective term for critics of the global warming hypothesis. I used “sceptic” for a while, but decided it was inappropriate since, with a handful of exceptions, the people I’m talking about are anything but sceptical when it comes to anything that supports their preconceived views. Then I switched to “contrarian”, but that suffers from many of the same problems. I toyed with “denialist”, but that comes too close to a violation of Godwin’s Law for my liking. I suppose I could just say “critics of the global warming hypothesis”, but that seems clumsy and “global warming critics” means something else altogether. Any suggestions?

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  1. gordon
    March 31st, 2004 at 12:14 | #1

    Since, as you say, “skeptic” is inappropriate, and since such people are often also found denying other environmental problems, maybe “anti-sustainabilists” would be appropriate. But this is so clumsy it probably won’t do. However if we remember that sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without preventing our children from also meeting their own needs (paraphrased from Our Common Future), maybe a simple word for these people would be “thieves”.

  2. March 31st, 2004 at 12:53 | #2

    “Attention seekers” is pretty accurate. When you keep on coming out with the same dumbarse obfuscations and untruths in the face of all the evidence, then attention is what you are seeking.

  3. Joe
    March 31st, 2004 at 13:43 | #3

    Climate creationists?

  4. March 31st, 2004 at 15:40 | #4

    now now children – obviously there needs to be a name that isn’t insulting.

    The name should depend on whether the person is skeptical of global warming, or more specifically skeptical of whether the government can and/or should do something about it. The latter could easily be called ‘libertarian’ or any other handle that indicates lack of government action.

    For the others, ‘global warming skeptics’ seems to work fine. It shows that they are just skeptical about the existence of global warming.

  5. kyan gadac
    March 31st, 2004 at 17:02 | #5

    The problem of course is the result of those damned post-modernists and their relativist approach to theory. A contrarian might after all be a physicist who believes in astrology. A similar issue arises with the term ‘politically correct’ when it’s used as a criticism of a point of view without saying why the point of view is wrong(as opposed to labelling it feminist, environmentalist etc.etc.)

    The labels we apply to people are not that important. Whether what they say makes sense, or is just obfuscation or waffle is important.

  6. d
    March 31st, 2004 at 17:06 | #6

    Perhaps, following Popper, we should accept that falsification and refutation of hypotheses and conjectures has an honourable role?

  7. Kinich Gatsky
    March 31st, 2004 at 17:07 | #7

    How about ‘mumpsimists’?

    It is technically an insult, but one requires a very thick dictionary indeed to work this out.

  8. March 31st, 2004 at 18:28 | #8

    d, of course these have an honourable role.

    However, given the large number of climate skeptics who simply sneer, misrepresent and cherry pick; they have written themselves out of any constructive role in the world of climate science.

    With this in mind, I vote for climate creationists.

  9. PK
    March 31st, 2004 at 18:30 | #9

    What about a new term for people who twist every issue imaginable into an opportunity to bash those who disagree with them on global warming?

    “Quigginists” perhaps?

    Or for global warming believers. How about “Model Fundamentalists”?

  10. John Quiggin
    March 31st, 2004 at 18:36 | #10

    “people who twist every issue imaginable into an opportunity to bash those who disagree with them on global warming?”

    Actually, PK, the motive for this post was James’ questioning of my use of the term “contrarian” in relation to the global warming debate, so you have the direction of causality the wrong way round.

  11. March 31st, 2004 at 19:04 | #11

    Or for global warming believers. How about “Model Fundamentalists”?

    Nice try PK, however, given that the mechanism and possability of global warming was determined in the late 19th century by a chemistry god, it doens’t seem that faith computer models is needed.

    Just a basic knowledge of science will do.

  12. Geoff Robinson
    April 1st, 2004 at 08:52 | #12

    The German pop-philospher Oswald Spengler once said he voted for the Nazis to annoy people. Are not contrarians just the latest manifestation of attention-seeking irresponsibility?

  13. Brian Bahnisch
    April 1st, 2004 at 09:10 | #13

    I dunno. A contrarian investor is one that, when all the sheep run to one side of the paddock, heads the other way. So when every-one else is selling the contrarian buys, and vice versa. The contrarian comes unstuck when the mob turns out to be right.

  14. James Farrell
    April 1st, 2004 at 13:01 | #14

    Thanks for following this up, John. I think the analysis of Hitchens is spot on.

    I actually raised the issue in the context of your remarks on Matt Cavanagh, who was opposing laws against racial discrimination and so on. Therefore I thought we were after something more general than a term for global warming sceptics.

    You defined contrarian as: 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.

    I suggested: one who gives academic respectability to opinions that, for better or worse, have come to be regarded by educated people as unenlightened and discredited.

    So the problem is to find a word for this phenomenon, and the problem with contrarian is that it evokes independence and non-allegiance, whereas as the type of person we’re talking about is either set on ingratiating himself with a redneck cheer squad, or compromised by affiliation with corporations and cost-cutting governments.

    Like John Humphreys I don’t want anything too insulting, just something fair and reasonable, along the lines of ‘reactionary obfuscator’, but with a bit more poetry to it.

  15. John Quiggin
    April 1st, 2004 at 13:10 | #15

    Just to clarify, James, I defined “the worst sort of contrarian” as “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.”

    I think something close to what you proposed have applies to contrarians in general, though they need not be academics.

  16. Mark
    April 1st, 2004 at 16:14 | #16

    When I was first reading about organic farming I was surprised to see a group of people, often employed as “fellows” at one or another US conservative think tanks, who seemed to be in the business of angrily and bitterly attacking the very existence of organic farming.

    I could see no reasons for their ravings, aside from their desire to please their corporate benefactors or the assumption that such “arguments” would somehow please those benefactors.

    Because I see so much like that in the anti-scientific counterpoints to warming, evolution, and other generally accepted scientific statements I think two names for them occur: antagonists or publicists.

  17. Harry Clarke
    April 1st, 2004 at 23:59 | #17

    People who disbelieve the likelihood of global warming are not ‘contrarians’ who point out contradictions in the conventional wisdom without putting forward a coherent alternative. They simply disagree with certain views. They are either asserting that the evidence does not back up the claims made by those pushing for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or, like me, are unsure of how to interpret the evidence that does exist. In this case they don’t need to offer a ‘coherent alternative’ — in policy terms they can sit pat. At the AEA meetings this year Ken Arrow pointed out that no-one can assert the case for greenhouse gas controls without non-trivial uncertainty (trivially we are uncertain about everything!). He reminded us of past claims of a forthcoming ‘global freezing crisis’ backed up by ‘evidence’. Dealing with greenhouse gas emissions now in an effective way is costly and the benefits questionable although the possible costs of not dealing with the issue are massive. Mathematically the problem involves multiplying a small uncertain probability by a possibly massive but uncertain cost so it is hard to guess at the likely outcome. Indeed I unsure the issue is even well-posed as a ‘policy task’. The rationale for divergent views is simple so why any need for labels to describe divergent views ?

  18. kyan gadac
    April 2nd, 2004 at 01:35 | #18

    I’m not sure what the ‘global freezing crisis’ is that Harry Clarke is referring to but I’ll bet my last dollar that it wasn’t argued for vehemently and consistently by the vast majority of the world’s meteorologists and physicists. You can play post-modernist tricks about ‘evidence’ and ‘uncertainty’ to avoid having to address the real issues and keep your head in the sand until you stop feeling ‘unsure’. But is that just timidity about your paycheck talking or are simply unwilling to understand the argument like any other bigoted contrarian.

  19. April 2nd, 2004 at 11:10 | #19

    calm down kyan – I don’t think “bigoted contrarian” was the agreed term. :)

    I agree with Harry that the uncertainty is enough to warrant a delay in any policy action – especially dramatic policy action. I also think that the problem (to the degree that it is a problem) will be solved without government within 50 years. Hopefully before the policy-hungry activists get to “fix” the problem.

  20. April 2nd, 2004 at 14:00 | #20

    What about “brownie” as a name for critics of the global warming hypothesis? no, Sedgwick, Brownie, not Browneye!

  21. April 2nd, 2004 at 18:43 | #21

    Harry, I really hope that you have misintrepreted what Ken Arrow was saying when you write He reminded us of past claims of a forthcoming ‘global freezing crisis’ backed up by ‘evidence’.

    Human induced climate change has hundreds (perhaps thousands) of peer reviewed scientific papers behind it. Whereas the global freezing crisis had about zero.

    Comparisions between the two are simply misleading.

  22. Harry Clarke
    April 2nd, 2004 at 21:16 | #22

    I think Ken you did misinterpret what I said. I think Arrow is pobably a supporter of actions to limit Greenhouse gas emissions. But what he said was that he was uncertain as to whether a problem was going to occur or not and this uncertainty went beyond the normal uncertainty we experience about things. Thus he considered policies you might adopt in this situation given that the costs of wrongly diagnosing a problem are high as are the costs of not dealing with a real unrecognised problem.

    This is tough — no simple solutions. The ‘Precautionary Principle’ much loved by Greenies doesn’t work since minimising the maximum damage that might occur implies spending nothing on curtailing emissions since you might spend a lot and this policy might still fail, so you might still get warming but spend a lot.

    You might alternatively think in a Bayesian way about the world and update your probabilities of forecast disaster on the basis of experience but where do your ‘priors’ come from? (Bayes apparently asked this about his own work and for this reason was initially reluctantto publish it!).

    Ken Arrow is a man of integrity and ability. He recognises the choice here. He didn’t label opponents of the ‘global warming’ thesis as ‘contrarians’ or use other perjorative terms.
    He just said there was doubt and the ‘global freezing’ thesis (past views that we are headed for another ice age) illustrated this reasonable doubt.

  23. April 3rd, 2004 at 14:49 | #23

    I know that Arrow is a man of integrity, which is why I hoped that you misintrepreted him.

    My point is simply, a comparision between the global cooling scare and global warming are simply not valid.

    Our knowledge basis is literally orders of magnitude higher.

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