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Where Is the Line Between Being Critical & Contrarian? Thoughts On a Plague

Cartoon of person scribbling fiercely

In a post late last year, I used the phrase “contrarian Covid takes”. On Twitter, Lars Henning asked, “what exactly does it mean?” I realized I couldn’t answer that. I had used contrarian in a pejorative sense, while for some, it is a badge of honor, I said, and I’d think about a proper answer. I clearly had some reading and thinking to do. This post is the result.

There are various synonyms for contrarianism, some positive, some neutral, some distinctly negative. Contrarians may be seen as courageous, unconventional, counterintuitive thinkers, able to withstand herding pressures and even abuse from crowd-following conformists…Some rejoice in the title while others shun it. It can be a label of both praise and condemnation.

Adrian Furnham (2019)

Christopher Hitchens made a famously eloquent case championing contrarianism – that it is critical thinking, plus being argumentative: “the essence of an independent mind is not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks”. Dissent is indispensable, he argued – a bulwark against bullying, stupidity, and everyone getting swept along with all sorts of wrongness. What Hitchens is describing can hold when a contrarian position is right. When it’s not, it can just be more wrongness that we need to refute.

Importantly, this conception of contrarianism doesn’t mean being opposed to everything as a reflex. People often argue that because a person they support agrees with some scientific consensus, that proves calling them “contrarian” is unfair. As in, yes, sure, they may be anti-mask and against Covid vax for young people, but they are in favor of the vax for old people – so therefore they aren’t being contrarian.

However, as an advocate of contrarianism tweeted, always taking a position dependent on what dominant voices say would be just another form of conformism. Like a sub-culture being reflexively “anti” “herd thinking” on social issues – if they’re for it, we’re against it – en masse. That exists, for sure, but it’s not independent thinking. You can be contrarian on some issues, but not others: that’s not a contradiction.

So when does being an argumentative independent thinker with a dissenting opinion on a science issue peel off into harmful contrarianism?

I think it’s the spiral into serial campaigns of cherry-picking, aggressively nit-picking every inconvenient study result while ignoring or explaining away the flaws in ones they prefer. Confirmation bias and weaponized critical appraisal – “drive-by shooting” studies – combine in a risky brew of wrongness. As the evidence pile grows and shifts away from supporting the contrarian position, there’s doubling down instead of the extraordinarily challenging work of climbing down.

A common element in this campaigning can be what Freudenberg and colleagues called “Scientific Certainty” Argumentation Methods, or SCAMs. That’s the tactic of using the high bar science has for declaring strong certainty, to instil excessive doubt in bodies of evidence. Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues discuss this dynamic in climate change denial, pointing out that scientists are particularly susceptible to “the seepage of this contrarian discourse”.

We need to acknowledge our vulnerability to clever contrarianism in general. There will always be people rewarded with a ton of attention and cheering fandom for it, who then get hooked on it. Staying on the critical thinking side of the line means avoiding getting sucked into their vortex of biased evidence selection and critique.

Cartoon public service announcement about confirmation bias

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Cartoon of medical conservative bias, always leaning in the same direction

Posts on similar themes here at Absolutely Maybe:

Science Heroes and Disillusion

Peeling Back the Layers of Medical Conservatism

Scientific Advocacy and Biases of the Ideological and Industry Kinds

The cartoons are my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). (More cartoons at Statistically Funny.)

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