A disproportionate share of my influences have been, at least in track record if not in conscious intellectual identity, contrarian voices. Contrarians are to me those thinkers who have a persistent mistrust of conventional wisdom. They tends towards a certain amount of Burkean conservativism (i.e. the status quo is usually better than we give it credit for), though not necessarily economic or cultural conservatism. The last 5 years, specifically the Trump administration and the Covid-19 pandemic, have to my mind presented perhaps the single greatest challenge for contrarians in my lifetime for a host of (maybe) obvious and non-obvious reasons. To better understand why, I think it’s worth casually investigating the strengths and weakness of contrarian sensibilities.
Contrarians are an antidote to herding
The Banerjee model of herding behavior is a masterclass of parsimonious modeling that changes the way you see the world the moment you internalize it. To oversimplify and already simple model, it’s the classic business cliché of “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM” writ both much larger and much smaller. If you’re on Twitter, it means nobody gets cancelled reaffirming the shibboleths within your intellectual and political social network. Following the herd can insulate you from bespoke micro consequences (i.e. no one can punish you without punishing everyone), but it can’t protect you from macro consequences (i.e. if the herd runs off a cliff, you’re going over with them).
Contrarian’s are useful because they are seemingly less susceptible to such pressures to conform because their identity, and the product they sell in the intellectual marketplace is defined by their distance from modal positions. What’s interesting here is that whether they are right or wrong is almost beside the point – contrarians add value just by adding noise to the intellectual marketplace, jittering herding populations out of potentially suboptimal equilibria. This is a powerful consideration – contrarians can make the world a smarter place even if their actual intellectual goods are complete trash.
Contrarians maintain our intellectual hygiene
Similar to their ability to break herding equilibria, contrarians offer a custodial service for science. Through their constant devil’s advocation, contrarians serve up intermittent stress tests for old ideas that might otherwise survive simply based on past glories. Just because something is an old truth doesn’t mean it’s a good or useful truth. Contrarians force us to regularly consider our core models and assumptions. Is it annoying when someone asks whether or not NASA was actually successful? Of course, it’s always annoying to defend a position that is obviously true. But sometimes you get a Warren Nutter telling anyone who will listen that Paul Samuelson’s textbook is wrong and the Soviet Union is a shell of its industrial reputation. Sure, it probably wasn’t fun to get run out of academia <adopts the snarkiest Ivy-league-jerk-in-a-skit-voice>for being just so obviously wrong, but checking every now and then that we actually know the things we think we know is an underprovided public good. We need contrarians to tell use when fads and social shibboleths are masquerading as science.
There’s more wisdom than madness in crowds
Hygiene and herd-prevention are definitively good things, but it’s important to remember that most conventional wisdom is in fact wisdom. There’s a been a certain agony in watching my favorite contrarians tie themselves in knots trying to find the strategic genius to Donald Trump, the collective madness that must be behind Covid fears, the grand lie of that surrounds Joe Biden as he sells his secret Republicanism to Democrats. Sometimes things are obvious because they are obvious.
Most of the time, whether it’s guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or finding the best pizza in town, the crowd gets it right. The reason that most politically informed people think Donald Trump is a wet-brained buffoon is that he’s a buffoon (I will forever hold to the believe that his buffoonery wasn’t a strategic choice, but rather an pre-existing attribute that the political marketplace generally, and the Republican Primary specifically, selected for in 2016 and may select for again. Politics, like any habitat, can be quite cruel in its amorality.) The reason most people are afraid of Covid is because Covid is a danger of sufficient magnitude that it warrants private and public action to mitigate it. The reason that Joe Biden seems like a mix of the modal Republican and Democrat is because that’s exactly what the median voter is. The mob is good any taking a million small clues and turning them into a big conventional wisdom.
Intellectual Serial Autocorrelation
We should all be careful of our own intellectual brands, doubly so for contrarians. Yes, I’ll admit that in the market for takes there is a strong incentive to differentiate, but most following the path of optimal differentiation end up being just a different flavor of one of the two or three dominant conventional positions. Contrarians are far more likely to stake out territory as lone(-ish) wolves, perhaps on the periphery of one or more of the major intellectual identity clusters.
For these thinkers and commentators, they can often find themselves repelled from the obvious. Cultivating too strong a revulsion to the wisdom of crowds is often foolish and sometimes dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there is no spoon. Sometimes. But most of the time it’s just a spoon and you should move on to the next puzzle. Maybe your model of world of the world is telling you to keep plowing ahead, but if everyone in the car is telling you to stop, you should probably stop.