why your contrarian take is almost certainly wrong

Today’s media is addicted to contrarian takes on everything. And those takes are almost always just attention-grabbing clickbait.
demagogue tantrum

In the age of social media, everyone and their grandma has a searing hot take on just about any topic, from science, to current events, to technology, and articles that warn you that everything you know about such and such might be wrong, so you better click and read, lest you continue to wallow in your wrongness. For example, while the Western world worried about switching to green energy because it’s the right thing to do to save the climate and deprive authoritarian petrostates like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE of revenue, clout, and geopolitical grip on old empires trying to turn an ethical leaf, Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger insist that trying to clean up our pollution is what caused Russia to invade Ukraine.

Now, this is a take so weapons grade stupid I’m amazed it’s not being bundled with the next shipment of Javelins to be used for wide range psionic assaults, but this is what Shellenberger, Weiss, and the rest of the “intellectual dark web” do. If you’re not familiar with this bunch, I’d like to congratulate you on your blissful ignorance and apologize for ruining it. Basically, it’s a group of pundits who found a calling in writing endless stream of contrarianism meant to justify pretty much every retrograde, laughably insipid idea ever voiced in public. From making AI less prone to repeating human bias, to why younger generations are having less sex, they’re ready with a long-winded answer diametrically opposite to basic human decency.

Their take on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is no exception. Literally anyone who spent more than ten minutes learning about Russia and its view of the world can tell you that a coterie of Russian elites and demagogues believe it’s their role to “reclaim the Russian world” and that smaller Eastern European states like Ukraine, which now gravitate towards the West, must be brought into the fold by any means necessary, including force. This conflict was pretty much certain to happen unless Ukraine behaved like Belarus; turned itself over to a puppet ruler in total subservience to Russian whims. Relying to oil and gas actually empowered Putin to even think he could pull off an attempt at a 21st century revival of the Russian Empire.

the trouble with being a contrarian

But then again, packaging tone-deaf, outlandish ignorant contrarianism as audacious insight is their entire brand, and you can subscribe to their Substacks and buy their books to learn all the other things 99% of experts on subjects they mangle got wrong. And they’re far from the only ones. With a need to compete for traffic in plain, flat social media squares, far too many outlets follow their model of contrarianism for clicks, claiming to offer completely new insights every other outlet and expert missed. The only problem with that, is that statistically, their takes are most likely dead wrong because a consensus on something is based on experts coming to the same conclusion after many debates, and experts tend to know what they’re talking about.

Of course, this is not to say that the experts will always get it right. Critics will certainly point to the same dozen stories of the establishment or mainstream being horribly wrong, but there’s a reason why they tend to use the same stories, and even those are often embellished, if not just outright distorted. For example, Einstein didn’t dethrone modern physics, but built on others’ work. Darwin didn’t take biology by surprise with the theory of natural selection because it was already brewing for a century, he was answering a common scientific question that one of his peers solved at the same time. And we could keep on going. The cases of a scientific consensus being completely upended by one person is basically one in several billion.

Even in matters like economics and politics, aberrations like austerity, trickle-down economics, and the Iraq War were not a matter of expert consensus, with actual experts waiving red flags that sloganeering and wishful thinking was winning the day over the facts. To paraphrase a very good Canadian TV show, if you’re gonna come at the experts, you better come correct. And if you aren’t an expert in the field with peer-reviewed research that survived numerous cycles of debate and replication, odds are that you’re not coming correct. Again, you could be right, but the odds are not in your favor, especially if your primary forums are columns and podcasts by professional contrarians whose job is to disagree with literally everything.

how to recognize a real controversy

All right then, you may be thinking, how do I know that a contrarian might have a good point and isn’t just wasting my time for attention? Well, there are several major tells. First, the idea doesn’t completely contradict almost every piece of research on the subject over decades. If Weiss and Shellenberger want to argue that breathing radioactive coal dust from a fossil fuel power plant is better than wind farms, and that wind and solar farms don’t work, they can, but they’re contradicting every study on the subject. On the other hand, doctors who believe that avoiding sugary, processed foods, and natural portion control is far more effective than calorie counting to stay fit based on actual research? They’re probably on to something.

This brings us to the second point. Note that Weiss and Shellenberger are not climatologists, engineers, or environmental scientists. They’re writers and PR flacks. Contrarians often lack proper credentials in the fields in which they’re boldly offering their opinions. For example, my most frequent contrarian takes are on the future of AI, but I also have a graduate degree in computer. My opinion is based on looking at code, math, and real-world results. Meanwhile, the notion that trying to clean up the planet is a self-indulgent waste of time and Russia was empowered to attack Ukraine over it flies in the face of what virtually every climatologist, or historian, or just anyone fluent in Russian would tell you.

Finally, there’s the writer’s reputation to consider. Professional contrarians beloved by other professional contrarians and conspiracy theorists, are almost certainly going to be wrong and don’t care that this is the case. Their goal is to get you to spend money to read more of their hot takes and feel brilliant for absorbing and understanding their contrarian wisdom, or get a booking on your show to give them more airtime, not to educate you or actually get it right. Their end goal isn’t change, or even change for the better, but to snidely dismiss the consensus, call those who follow it a bunch of lemmings, and pat themselves and their fans on the back for saying this, not enacting actual, positive change or raise a real alarm.

So, the next time you come across a you’ve-been-doing-X-wrong or what-everybody-gets-wrong-about-X article, consider the topic and the source carefully. There’s a 99% chance you’re about to read some rank nonsense written to make you click the link, and probably full of bad or manipulated statistics, low quality research, critical omissions, and ads for the writer’s other work. Had they actually discovered a brand-new approach in the relevant field, they’d more than likely be getting a prize and research grants or starting a wildly successful company to put all those insights into practice, not writing contrarian hot takes in random publications and begging you to subscribe to their newsletters.

# education // critical thinking / media / skepticism


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