The Importance of Being Earnest: How Superfreakonomics killed contrarianism
I missed out on the Crooked Timber book title contest (combine a classic title with a “How C did Y” subtitle in the modern manner) a while back, so here’s my entry. As regards earnestness, i’m riffing off Andrew Gelman, via Kieran Healy at CT, who observes “”pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest?”
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 in a contra-contrarian style: “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.