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Contrarians, Cold Fusion, and Unicorns

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Which of the above things is unlike the others?

Trick question, of course. (Has anyone in history used that set up for an earnest inquiry?)

I was rummaging through books the other day, looking for a quote for something, when I came across a copy of Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian. It's an odd little book - a kind of self-help tome for the sorts of people who'd never delve into that genre. I also recall it was written under a bit of protest. Hitchens loathed the term "contrarian," and only went along with it at the publisher's request.

The publisher was right to demand he use it. In part because alleged contrarians like Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Kinsley, and John Tierney are hugely popular these days.* In greater part, however, because the concept of the "Contrarian," of being such an animal, is fiction. And what could be more self-contradictory than branding yourself something that doesn't exist?

It's true. There is no such thing as a contrarian - at least in the context in which the term is thrown around today. You might as well call a man an Honest Politician, or a Devout Mormon Lacking Pathological Capacity to Suspend Disbelief, or a Hobbit.

The definition of "Contrarian" is "a person who takes up a position opposed to that of the majority, no matter how unpopular." This assumes opinions naturally compete with one another. That if you conclude X and I conclude Y, and those conclusions cannot be reconciled, we, or at a minimum our opinions, are in a form of combat. This also assumes the majority has an opinion. Both of these assumptions are flawed.

Opinions are not in battle. An endless plurality of them circulate among us every day. If you espouse a view contrary to what millions of others espouse, you're not opposing them. You're merely offering a divergent perception. You are quite simply expressing what you see, which happens to differ from what most others see. You could be right, or they could be, but no amount of combat between you and them - however that would take form (debate, I guess) - is going to change the underlying facts, which are what they are, or will be what they will. In this regard, the better descriptive for "contrarian" would simply be "other."

Now to the fun part. To suggest the majority have "opinions" in modern society unfairly denigrates the term. In common parlance, that term defines a conclusion reached on a bit more than mere "belief." It assumes an at least cursory examination of facts, data, and evidence, to develop an assessment which cannot be proven empirically correct, but is pretty damn close.

This is not how "majority opinion" is crafted. Majority opinion is more cultural than anything else. A narrative is foist into the collective conscious-- Say, the one we're hearing today, about how hiring is robust, and the economy recovering... It catches the ears of the guileless, gets some traction among the middle minds, gains the backing of a few academics, becomes water cooler talk and, sure enough, inevitably, becomes consensus. "Things are looking up!" Maybe. But just as likely, maybe not.**

As the prevalence of the story increases, examination of its merit decreases. Bob heard it from Mary, whom he thinks is pretty smart, and so he parrots it to Chuck. Chuck knows Bob is a generally trustworthy guy, and so he passes it along to Melvin. Melvin's on Facebook, with 700 friends, each of whom has an average of 100 friends... And so it goes. Almost everybody in modern society is running on a hamster wheel of some sort, so nobody has the time to check out the specifics of the consensus, or feels the need to do so, and so the view quickly balloons to the size of a mega-skyscraper, shadowing in pitch darkness the street level voices next to it saying, "I think you've built on sand."***

The word that actually fits when we label something contrarian is "counter-culture." Not with the rebellious, revolutionary connotations the term took on in the '60s, but in its literal meaning. Recognition of the fact that if you disagree with what the majority thinks today, in almost every instance you're not challenging opinions, or hypotheses, but narratives gifted the patina of validity by our herding instincts. "A crowd this enormous couldn't possibly be wrong!" "And even if it is, I'll be wrong with everyone else!"

If the last fifteen years have offered any infallible anthropological truth it would be, Never underestimate the gravity at the center of the stampede. A black hole barely has as much. If you're standing on the sidelines watching the dust, you're not a contrarian disputing conclusions gleaned from data. You're counter-emotion, counter-"belief." Which is to say, counter-culture.


* A contradiction in itself. ^

** Many will bristle at this. The naive will often suggest broad acceptance of something is proof of its validity. This can be addressed in six syllables: organized religion. Cynics will say there's wisdom in crowds, at least in regard to markets. In an economy hostage to trends based on flawed cultural narratives, one has to join the hysteria for at least some period of time to surf the market waves to their peaks. This is true. But this isn't the wisdom of the crowd. This an observer of culture's weaknesses playing them for his benefit, something I suspect a lot of people consider quite counter-culture. ^

*** Make no mistake... The Achilles Heel of social media is it amplifies what is "social," which has never been a synonym for "intelligent," "unbiased," or "insightful." ^

[Read more from The Philadelphia Lawyer]

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