The mid-2000’s were a high-water mark in contrarian thinking. “Out of the box” approaches dominated the business, policymaking, writing, and personal arenas. 2005, in particular, stood out for writing that advanced this phenomenon. Malcolm Gladwell’s follow up novel Blink and Leavitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics were runaway best sellers. I eagerly read them during that summer and noted a shared theme about thinking differently. For Freakonomics, it is thinking differently about economics/culture and for Blink it was thinking differently about, well, thinking.
After I read those, I had a new arrow in my quiver. I started to try to approach thorny issues by looking at them in a “completely new way”. It’s not easy to do. I found myself coming up with fantastical rationales (because they had to be different than conventional wisdom) to reach what was 99% of the time the opposite to the established understanding. I was essentially picking an outcome and backfilling the justification with fluff and “thinking differently”. I’m not saying that Gladwell, Leavitt & Dubner, et.al. do this same thing. They’re far more rigorous in their investigation and methods. They picked specific issues that lent themselves to the application of a different approach. But I only applied their conclusion that thinking differently was beneficial and led to results. Once I realized this my excitement was tempered. Contrarianism can work but doesn’t always work. The Freakonomics bunch went on to form a cottage industry based on the book. There’s a movie, a radio station, and a blog that churns out more examples of how going against the grain of “mainstream” understanding can open one’s eyes to the “right” answer. Over the years I’ve noted that they’re falling into the same trap I did. I admit it’s got to be tough to keep coming up with subjects that prove their beliefs. But sometimes (not all of the time) I suspect that they’re starting with a preferred conclusion and backfilling.
The legacy of contrarianism-mania is that we all have a convenient scapegoat if we see a conclusion that we don’t like. “Yeah that’s the conventional wisdom, but have you read Freakonomics?” I get that sort of argument quite frequently in the odd corners of the interwebs I visit and in good old meatspace as well. Things really crystallized for me on this when I saw the following (paraphrased) comment in one of my online haunts in response to the assertion that contrarianism is a “brand”:
Contrarianism is not a brand. It’s more a business model to pitch that you can bash an egghead without doing the learning. It’s like gold ads for the willfully ignorant and conspiracy minded.
There’s something to that. I started to think about the people in real life that advanced the “did you read Freakonomics quasi-appeal to authority arguments to reach their preferred conclusion. Maybe you know these sorts. The guy who in his online bio states that he’s “Doing stuff better than you” and for education says “At the public library” but hates socialism with a white-hot intensity. Or the guy who never showed any interest in learning much about the world that got way into talk radio and now is a geo-political expert. I also noticed when and how they unleashed the argument. It essentially concedes the argument and asks to ignore all of the established evidence. It’s a suspension of belief argument. I’m extremely wary of those sorts of lines of thinking–just as I’m wary of appealing to “common sense”. But I’m still willing to be convinced. The existence of one “looking at things differently” or appealing to process just isn’t determinative in every case.
So if you hear this sort of appeal to the authority of “thinking differently”, have some pause. Is this the sort of issue that lends itself to the new approach? Are there some significant leaps of logic required to get to the proposed conclusion? Or are you being asked to forget what you know to be true just because that approached worked on another separate issue? Or are you allowing someone who doesn’t want to do the hard work of learning and knowing a subject to pretend they’re an expert?