Contrarian Models

We need better ClimateBall contrarians. Perhaps they need better contrarian role models. Let’s find them, if only for our own sake. Here are five of mine.

Fred Rogers was a TV show producer, a comedian, an author, a puppeteer, a composer, a singer, a pastor, an old-school conservative, and a life long Republican. His values may not reflect contemporary viewpoints, but his contrarianism shone (good grief, English – sometimes you’re drunk) in his slow-paced and nurturing child TV programs. His candor during a congressional testimony may have saved American public broadcasting:

I’m very much concerned, as I know you are, about what’s being delivered to our children in this country. And I’ve worked in the field of child development for six years now, trying to understand the inner needs of children. We deal with such things as — as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to…make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.

A version of this approach rocked Quebecers of my generation and beyond, with a show called Passe-Partout. I wouldn’t mind having been Mr. Rogers’ neighbour, it may have appeased my cynicism.

* * *

Philosopher Agnes Callard presents herself as a devil’s advocate advocate. She also talks about trangressivism. That’s more than contrarian to me. I expect that her debating style, like her overall persona, will change the philosopher stereotype:

The book the Guggenheim Award is being used to support, The World Socrates Made, will analyze contemporary intellectual culture—within philosophy; within academia more broadly; and extra academically, on social media—in the light of its Socratic origins. Our cultures of debate have a peculiarly Socratic structure—that of an adversarial division of epistemic labor—that we have come to take for granted. Both the idealistic heights we expect from argumentative engagement, as well as the depths (defensiveness, ad hominem argumentation, and mutual suspicion) to which it often, in reality, sinks bear the Socratic signature. Learning to read it is critical to creating the culture of refutation that we want and need.

For the better I believe, as I think philosophers waste too much time writing arcane deliverables nobody but themselves read. Social media changed everyone. It’s about time it changes everything, including academia.

* * *


That is all.

* * *

Alice Dreger is a historian of science. Once a professor, she turned into journalism and won the first HxA Award. The title of her most popular book sets the contrarian tone:  Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice. Although the word “justice” appears in that title, the word “Galileo” predisposes her to be well-loved among Freedom Fighters. Nevermind, I like her. Perhaps it’s a matter of style. Take this tidbit from her correspondence with John McDermott:

I previously sent you a link with an essay that explains my decision to leave Northwestern and generally take be wary of academia, and I have the sense you haven’t read it and may be under a misunderstanding with regard to my history. So here it is again:

It’s short so it won’t take you long to read.

To be frank, I’m hoping not to have the same experience with you that I had with Bari Weiss, when I was lumped into an alleged secret society about which I knew very little if anything. Here’s my cheeky piece on that:

But in all seriousness, I’m concerned you’ve come to this story with an assumption that isn’t playing out, and you’re determined to make it the story — that there is a secret peer support group of people who have been “cancelled.” I do not think of people like me, Katie [Herzog], or Jesse [Singal] as cancelled in any way — we all have vibrant careers — nor do I think of them as extraordinary work friends. They’re work friends like so many others in my life.

One can guess she wasn’t pleased with John’s profile of her as being a member of the Dank Web who’s been cancelled.

* * *

Ecologist Tomas Crowther wants a trillion more trees on Earth. He’s described as a disrupter. His approach is overly numerical. It relies on data, which at first seemed hard to get when sharing what provides one’s edge is hard. He got some, extrapolated from it, and published. Sounds like the best way to exploit what Czeslaw Milosz calls the Reverse Telescope in his Road-Side Dog:

Probably nothing can be accomplished without a belief in one’s superiority. This is achieved by looking at the accomplishments of others through a reverse telescope. Later, it is difficult not to be aware of the harm done.

We’ll see how it goes. How not to wish him the best?

* * *

From this list one can take away that contrarianism does not represent a one-size-fit-all box. I don’t believe in that kind of box. So here is my own take-away: likeability matters, but not as much as constructiveness. All the examples are constructive, all of them vary in likeability. This may be a personal bias. Perhaps we’d need to invent dislikeability, as there are many, many, many, many, examples of dislikeable contrarians. Finding less-than-suboptimal examples would have made this post both easier and longer.

We are all in it together, we all have neighbours, and we need better contrarians. I would not go so far as to suggest we all are contrarians, but any time spent online ought to be enough to realize that we all have our moments and our manners. We certainly ought to foster the best contrarian traits. While researching for this post I stumbled upon a Contrarian Prize in UK. Perhaps climate institutions ought to take heed and create a ClimateBall prize to celebrate the most constructive contrarians.

About Willard
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44 Responses to Contrarian Models

  1. Sören F says:

    What’s all this “contrarian” something, makes the blog uninteresting – why read further?

  2. Willard says:

    Welcome back, Sören. Beware that rhetorical questions can be answered:

    There is this confusion there between just non-zero AGW and dominant (>50%) AGW.

    The answer is that we need better contrarians.

    Thanks a bunch for the drive-by.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Yes, trillions of trees:
    so that, once fossil fuels are no longer burnt, the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere will decline.

  4. In the linked Chronicle piece, Alice Dregger asks philosophically ”

    “The Times article confirmed my initial fears — and made me glad that I asked to be left out (which I was). The article begins by breathlessly reporting that the IDW is rife with “beauty” and “danger.” So, what even is it? Here’s the vague rundown: “Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now.”

    Meh. How is this really about intellectualism, darkness, or a special web? If these people are having conversations that are so rare “in the culture,” how is it that they have millions of followers and pack auditoriums? (Is “the culture” The New York Times?)”

    As the Times is a charter member of the Nation/Guardian/Beeb/PBS climate communication potlach, one might ask how many of the 225 subscibers have thus far objected to the subjugation of thousands of journalists to a single playbook ? This sort of thing is giving propaganda a bad name.

  5. Willard says:

    > This sort of thing is giving propaganda a bad name.

    Exactly. Your remark and Alice’s remind me of the following point:

    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 the main selling point of contrarians (here the Dank Web) is how sad it is to be a contrarian because people are mean to them, then they are refusing to abide by the first and only rule for contrarians.

    No whining.

  6. Willard, Dreger framed the duelling echo chambers. problem in less orthodox terms:

    “You can’t have any integrity if you have a major book out on academic freedom telling people to stand up for their academic rights and you’re allowing your university dean to tell you what you can and can’t publish.”

    Few of the bien pensant Nation subscribers presently playing Climateball by Bill Moyers playbook seem to recall the days when the cartoon response of Nation readers to news of Bad Things happening behind the Iron Curtain was:

    Surely, you don’t believe what you read in The New York Times ?

  7. Willard says:

    I find Alice’s fight for freedom quite Feynmanian, Russell. As you must suspect that’s not complimentary. I find epistemic moralism distasteful. I appreciate deans much less, and even less corporatism in general. Style matters to me.

    Academia faces grave problems. They need to be faced, not exploited by some grievance industry. As Alice herself says, pissing off progressives isn’t intellectual progress.

  8. izen says:

    playing the victim always seems a good tactic…

  9. Steven Mosher says:

    Thats so funny Willard, mt and I and another NU guy were talking about Arthur Butz the other day on Twitter.

    Yes Alice is Good. Really Good.

    Here is the thing that got her in trouble. Its pretty tame and the piece ( I read it before)
    was hardly objectionable. Especially considering that we did have Butz as a professor
    along with some other lunatics.

    Click to access atrium-issue12.pdf

  10. Joshua says:

    Seems to me that according to this:

    > 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.

    “Our” climate contrarian aren’t contrarians.

  11. BBD says:

    Oh, I think some of them are.

  12. Chubbs says:

    My nomination:

  13. Joshua says:

    BBD –

    Well, no doubt I was too categorical, but here’s my thinking: Many (most?) of our much beloved climate contrarians hang out at “skeptic” website yucking it up with each other about what idiots “alarmists” are, what bad people libz are, in fact agreeing with with other people and not telling people that their cherished beliefs are wrong.

    They’re working on establishing and confirming their own group’s conventional wisdom. They relatively rarely challenge each other, even when the arguments being presented are obviously shallow. Many are smart, knowledgeable people who have developed sophisticated analytical skills and spend much of their time utilizing those skills, yet they accept vapid arguments as if they’re gospel.

    That doesn’t make them much different than most people, but in many ways (imo) they are the antithesis of a contrarian – as they actively seek out the comfort of shared group identity.

  14. Joshua says:

    So while they may be “climate contrarians” (how is linguistic convention determined?) they ain’t no contrarians, just like “climate skeptics” ain’t no skeptics.

  15. Willard says:

    > Many (most?) of our much beloved climate contrarians hang out at “skeptic” website yucking it up with each other about what idiots “alarmists” are, what bad people libz are, in fact agreeing with with other people and not telling people that their cherished beliefs are wrong.

    That’s what Alice recognized in the Dank Web, and since she’s a contrarian par excellence, she wanted no part of that. Same for Agnes. She would disapprove being called so, at least she did, directly to me. I don’t mind, perhaps because I’m the contrarians’ contrarian. The mark of contrarianism in each of us may be this tension between our natural reluctance to be categorized coupled with a desire to identify ourselves with what we do.

    Asking “but what is a contrarian, really” misses the point and puts the cart before the horse.

    It misses the point because labeling does not work by definition, but by stipulation and reinforcement. A youngster who tells you “OK, boomer” needs not know your age or what really is a boomer. It’s just the meme of the moment, and asking about sufficient and necessary conditions for boomerness may not be the most felicitous way to counter mockery.

    It also puts the cart before the horse, because these labels work from examplars to classes, not the other way around. We look at specific people and go from there. We work between prototypes and stereotypes all the time. Only conceptual analysts go further.

    In a word, language is a social art.


    Nice example, Chubbs. Yes, Richard Muller would fit the bill. He’s a contrarian alright. Is he a climate contrarian? Perhaps not anymore.

  16. Chubbs says:

    Willard – No Muller isn’t a climate contrarian anymore. You may be looking for a unicorn.

  17. Willard says:

    > You may be looking for a unicorn.

    Let’s hope not. I’m not asking for contrarians that would be forever contrarians. Contrarians who can constructively contribute to a field tend to have their contributions incorporated into the orthodox viewpoint. Add to that the fact the observation that each “appropriation” vindicates contrarianism and we have a proof why contrarians always win:

    That paradox obtains when we conceive wordologies as static or absolute. To me, contrarian is first and foremost a relational concept. There is a mainstream view. Anyone who promotes contrary views is contrarian.

    If we want better contrarians, one may need to psychologize a bit. Contrarian models are persons, and thus exhibit attitudes. Even then, my main characteristic is product-oriented. There are many ways to be constructive. As long as in the end there’s some giving going on, all should be well.

  18. Willard says:

    Good timing, Adam:

    Bolivians thank you for your work.

  19. Preventive environmental wars? Will the eco-army have solar-powered bombers and wind-powered tanks? Otherwise just the buildup of material and troops would make them a primary target for their own military. Perhaps they’ll shoot straight up and remove their helmets.

  20. BBD says:

    Perhaps they’ll shoot straight up and remove their helmets.

    It’s the goats in the field a mile away that will have to watch out for spent rounds. Windage, inexactly perpendicular elevation at firing, minor imperfections in projectile manufacture… it all adds up. But never mind me, I’m just being contrarian.

  21. Willard says:

    And what’s your ethical justification for the Irak Occupation or for the Bolivian coup, JeffN?

    The concept of just war is a tough nut to crack.

  22. BBD, aye, they’ll have to put some thought into it 🙂
    I’m not sure there’s been a “just war” since 1939, but perhaps that just me being contrarian and a bit Eurocentric- hard to argue that liberating Koreans is less valid than liberating the French.
    Bolivia? Ick. But that’s not the only place in South America an authoritarian leftist is in trouble. Best that they fall naturally, but they tend to shoot a lot on the way out.

  23. Willard says:

    > Best that they fall naturally, but they tend to shoot a lot on the way out.

    Here’s the natural process:

    But you got to say “authoritarian leftist,” JeffN, so that’s all cool.

  24. izen says:

    “But that’s not the only place in South America an authoritarian leftist is in trouble.”

    Are there any leftists left in S America ?
    I thought Venezuela and Bolivia were the only ones left.

    With Chile in meltdown and Guatemala and Ecuador shaky it looks more like the wave of army-backed rightists are now at risk.
    History would tend to indicate that it is the authoritarian rightists who run the most death squads.

  25. Steven Mosher says:

    yes exemplars.
    and borderline cases.

    kmeans clustering. kinda

  26. Steven Mosher says:

    huh. most war is just as long as it doesnt end in a tie. then it was pointless.
    in the end ,since audits never end, you have two choices. rhetoric or force. explanation or power.oh try to spare women and children if you can.

    or we can just say the concept of justice is misapplied to nations.

  27. Willard says:

    > we can just say the concept of justice is misapplied to nations.

    Even then that would require an argument.

    By serendipity:

  28. Steven Mosher says:

    “Even then that would require an argument.”

    Err no it would not REQUIRE an argument. An argument would be nice if your goal is convincing
    others without using force. We try to use argument to avoid using force, but in the end if
    the state decides to use force there is no effective arguing with them.. “lets go back and use
    our words ” doesn’t work when the state is employing ultimate sanctions, or lets say it’s not
    100% effective to use words when the other is using force. Now of course Bully nation
    A will always use words to justify its use of force against little country B. Except for Ghegis, he was not so big on using his words.

    Anyway if you want an argument Hobbes might do. You might not buy his argument, but if you
    think one Should have an argument ( not so sure about that) then I think he has one. If you
    think one should always have a convincing argument with no defeaters, then a lot of our cherished
    positions fail. meh.

    Travel observations:

    I was crossing the road the other day and by friend pulled me back. ‘That car will hit you”
    “Huh? don’t cars stop for people??” . “dude, this is not SF, the powerful have an obligation
    to show you their power, so you know your place and order is preserved” . “huh? WTF? ”
    Anyway I thought this was weird and upside down until I was stuck in traffic watching
    a little old lady walk her bike in front of a bus. The bus was stopped. Traffic was stopped.
    Light was red.

    She had space to sneak between the bus and the car in front.

    Bus driver inched forward and knocked her over, then yelled out the window. Justice was
    served. She understood her place and order was preserved. equality has a meaning that
    is slightly different. it means equal within your rank. She’ll use the crosswalk next time.

    Not to my taste, however, but I get the concept. I also get the western concept of needing
    an argument, logos and all that jazz. meh, the bus hit the lady. She got the message. moral behavior is grounded in fulfilling your role. Not western, but I get it.

  29. Willard says:

    > An argument would be nice if your goal is convincing others without using force.

    I thought we were talking about the context of a philosophical paper. Otherwise I agree. Allow me to expand on your western thing:

    POMO wins.

  30. izen says:

    “…the bus hit the lady. She got the message. moral behavior is grounded in fulfilling your role. Not western, but I get it.”

    Social mores vary.
    Try crossing the road as a pedestrian in Holland.
    The cars stop, the bicycles don’t, even at designated crossing points.

  31. Steven Mosher says:

    yes izen i get that

  32. Izen- “…it looks more like the wave of army-backed rightists are now at risk.”
    I hope that authoritarians of any stripe are nervous. A global free market economy abhors authoritarians, which is why leftists abhor a free market economy. Hello Hong Kong.

    “History would tend to indicate that it is the authoritarian rightists who run the most death squads.”
    Leftist just have better PR. Che enjoyed running and being part of death squads, he’s on T-shirts on college campuses on students who will tell you they oppose death squads.

  33. Willard says:

    > Leftist just have better PR.

    I know no “leftist” equivalent of Cambridge Analytica, JeffN. Check out the results of their campaign in Trinidad and Tobago:

    That’s more tangible than t-shirts.

  34. izen says:

    “A global free market economy abhors authoritarians, which is why leftists abhor a free market economy.”

    Can you have a global free market when the national participents are NOT free markets ?
    Trump is certainly not a leftist, but seems very opposed to a free market given the tariffs and bailouts he applies.

    I find it hard to see ANY free market economy anywhere in the world. Somalia sometimes gets cited because of its lack of a central authority. US neoliberals pushed a free market model in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. It seems to have resulted in oligarchs, corruption and the placement of an authoritarian chosen by the oligarchs to preserve their advantages.
    Every other national economy I can think of has a significant role for government regulation of the market. In Europe it is codified in a social-democrat approach. But even in India, Asia and Africa teh economic market is strongly shaped by government interaction and regulation. Either in an effort to redistribute the unequal flow of wealth, or preserve the status quo.

    Perhaps ‘free market economies’ are one of those contrarian ideas that are perpetually pushed, but never realised.

  35. verytallguy says:

    Much government intervention is to correct market failures.

    Just for instance, information asymmetry is somewhat corrected by weights and measures regulation.

    Denial of the central role of government regulation in ensuring free markets is one of the hallmarks of laissez faire economics. A cynic might think that the funding of political organisations espousing such views by individuals whose wealth depends on exploiting market failures enabled by deregulation is what drives this denial.

  36. Willard- are you saying left wing organizations don’t do campaign ads, don’t do oppo research, or don’t do messaging? I remember when the Washington Post et al first started going ape about the unholy power of Rush Limbaugh. It was hilarious. ABC, CNN, NBC, CBS, NYT and WaPo horrified that some dude was allowed to talk on AM radio.

    Free markets require government- enforcement of contracts patents and copywrites, maintenance of ports and roads, common defense, public safety, policing of corruption. These are all requirements of a successful free market. regulating the size of your bananas not so much.

  37. Willard says:

    > are you saying

    You tell me, JeffN. You’re the one putting words into my mouth. Since you oblige, why of course banana size matters:

    The alleged ban on curved bananas is a long-standing, famous, and stereotypical claim that is used in headlines to typify the Euromyth. Amongst other issues of acceptable quality and standards, the regulation does actually specify minimum dimensions. It also states that bananas shall be free from deformation or abnormal curvature. However, the provisions relating to shape apply fully only to bananas sold as Extra class; slight defects of shape (but not size) are permitted in Class I and Class II bananas. However, a proposal banning straight bananas and other misshapen fruits was brought before the European Parliament in 2008 and defeated.

    Never misunderestimate the power of mythology.

  38. izen says:

    “regulating the size of your bananas not so much.”

    Shortly after joining the EU the UK had a dispute over the regulation of bananas. The media spin was that the EU was forcing the UK to take straight bananas.
    The underlying problem was that the UK had trade agreements with its ex colonies to buy their bananas. The EU wanted to replace this exclusive trade contract with the EU trade agreements with a much wider range of sources. Some of which were cheaper.
    The UK wanted to continue the special deals it had with the former colonies, the commonwealth countries which had advantages for the growers and the UK importers, but not the consumer.

    So this effort was certainly not in the interests of free trade, but an attempt to perpetuate the master – servant setup of the British colonial era along with benefits for the business at the expense of the consumer. Such regulatory capture is a common feature of ‘liberal’ democracy in response to a capitalist economy. Attempts to remove these barriers to ‘free trade’ often meet strong opposition from the interested parties, and in this case it was spun in the public media as an attack on the Nation’s sovereignty and an imposition by foreigners on the UK public.

    This is the problem for the ‘free trade’ advocates. It often conflicts with historical arrangements that are advantageous to those with the wealth and most political power to resist regulation that would be of communal benefit.

  39. verytallguy says:

    “Free markets require government- enforcement of contracts patents and copywrites,…”

    Protection of intellectual property is a requirement for free markets??

    Wow. Heard everything now.

  40. Joshua says:

    Willard –

    > Asking “but what is a contrarian, really” misses the point and puts the cart before the horse.

    I’m not sure there is a “the point.”

    Irrespective of that, I agree that labeling doesn’t “work” by definition. But notwithstanding, I think I have a different view towards what makes labeling “work.” IOW, I think we might differ how to determine what “works.”

    At any rate, I’m not particularly focused here on the effect of the label, but in the semantics of whether these folks are contrarians. IMO, not many if them are. Whether the label does or does not have any particular effect, and whether that effect is “working,” is another matter (and, I suspect, a rather complex topic).

  41. Willard says:

    > I’m not sure there is a “the point.”

    Are you ever?

  42. Joshua says:

    > Are you ever?

    A side effect of being easily confused?

  43. Willard says:

    > A side effect of being easily confused?

    I doubt it.

    “The point” is clarified by what I say in the paragraph that follows. I’m talking about why we use labels. Labeling works in ways that asking what such or such label means is seldom relevant. Etc.

    In general, I believe that Socrates role-playing should be kept to a minimum. If you don’t want to use “contrarian” because you don’t know what it means, fine. Use “”skeptic.”” Not sure how it’s clearer, but who cares. I still understand to what you’re referring. If I want clarification I can always ask. No big deal.

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