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Columns

Contrarianism as Dogma

The conventional wisdom deserves to be challenged, not mirrored

By Dylan R. Matthews

Social-science superstars Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and Slate music critic Jonah Weiner all triggered firestorms in the past week by endorsing propositions most sensible people would find absurd. Levitt and Dubner’s sequel to “Freakonomics,” the ever-creatively titled “Superfreakonomics,” included a chapter on global warming urging complacency and riddled with inaccuracies, from its assertion that curbing carbon emissions cannot prevent catastrophic climate change (it can) to its argument that solar panels contribute to global warming because they are black and radiate heat (they don’t, and in fact most are blue). Weiner, meanwhile, argued that the late-’90s atrocity of a band—Creed—is underrated.

As one would expect, each piece of nonsense triggered a strong counter reaction. Environmental bloggers and advocacy groups jumped on Levitt and Dubner, picking apart each and every piece of misinformation that they are using their fame to spread. Criticism of Weiner was centered on Twitter, where users offered satirical “Slate pitches” with theses as ridiculous as the notion that Creed has any redeeming value, like “Suicide: Why it might not actually kill you” or “Bank of America: Too awesome to fail.”

But while Slate took its criticism in stride, joking that it might actually publish some of these suggested stories, Levitt and Dubner were deeply offended that someone would take them to task for their sloppiness. “I just don’t get it,” Levitt lamented, adding that he didn’t think that “any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth’s future” could attack the duo. Dubner dismissed the criticism as a “smear” and a “partisan attack.” The implication was clear: Only a person who cared nothing about the planet, or a complete hack, could possibly criticize Levitt and Dubner’s spunky, counterintuitive take.

Such is the state of counterintuitive journalism these days. It used to be that purposefully contrarian journals like The New Republic or Slate used this angle as a means of slyly critiquing received wisdom, with full awareness—as seen in Slate’s response to mockery of the Creed article—that opposing the conventional wisdom was no more a guarantee of truth than buying conventional wisdom itself. They accepted criticism of their methods in the way they hoped establishment institutions would, with Slate even using its 10th anniversary to give four of the magazine’s critics article space in which to air their grievances.

But as Levitt and Dubner’s response suggests, the burden of proof has shifted. If one echoes the conventional wisdom, one must be a pawn of the establishment. If one challenges it, one is a brave truth-teller. It is a convenient posture, allowing careless writers like the “Freakonomics” duo to publish straight-up falsehoods in mass-market books and plead persecution when called out. But it also permits contrarians to traffic in the same fallacies and factual errors of which they so often accuse more mainstream writers. Perhaps most alarmingly, it allows them to misidentify what “mainstream” views entirely.

This is the proximate root of the “Superfreakonomics” debacle. Levitt and Dubner wanted to write about global warming, but they wanted to do it in such a way that was original and impugned the status quo. From the book, it seems like the following characterizes the status quo: a corporate system that allows ever-escalating carbon emissions, as well as a government patently unwilling to expend the monetary and political capital needed to stop catastrophic climate change.

However, Levitt and Dubner decided that criticizing the real culprits would not be counterintuitive enough. So instead, they embraced a motley crew of technological cranks who dismiss proven technologies like solar power in favor of utopian, untested schemes like cooling the earth through simulated volcano eruptions. Thus, they ended up criticizing the dissidents trying to limit carbon emissions rather than the status quo that allows such emissions free rein.

This type of misidentification has led to disaster in the past. After September 11th, a similar contrarian impulse led liberals to use books like Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” and magazines like, yes, The New Republic to argue in favor of war with Iraq against a perceived “liberal establishment.” The end result: a sturdy liberal infrastructure backing the real establishment, namely the Bush administration, as it launched America into the greatest foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam. As with Levitt and Dubner, contrarianism was co-opted into vigorous support for the status quo.

Again, there is nothing wrong in principle with contrarianism that is accurately targeted and aware of its limitations. Indeed, it is often a helpful tool for challenging real orthodoxies. But, as Levitt and Dubner show, a self-serious, sloppy contrarianism only ends up entrenching the status quo it seeks to critique.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Kirkland House. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.

Social-science superstars Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and Slate music critic Jonah Weiner all triggered firestorms in the past week by endorsing propositions most sensible people would find absurd. Levitt and Dubner’s sequel to “Freakonomics,” the ever-creatively titled “Superfreakonomics,” included a chapter on global warming urging complacency and riddled with inaccuracies, from its assertion that curbing carbon emissions cannot prevent catastrophic climate change (it can) to its argument that solar panels contribute to global warming because they are black and radiate heat (they don’t, and in fact most are blue). Weiner, meanwhile, argued that the late-’90s atrocity of a band—Creed—is underrated.

As one would expect, each piece of nonsense triggered a strong counter reaction. Environmental bloggers and advocacy groups jumped on Levitt and Dubner, picking apart each and every piece of misinformation that they are using their fame to spread. Criticism of Weiner was centered on Twitter, where users offered satirical “Slate pitches” with theses as ridiculous as the notion that Creed has any redeeming value, like “Suicide: Why it might not actually kill you” or “Bank of America: Too awesome to fail.”

But while Slate took its criticism in stride, joking that it might actually publish some of these suggested stories, Levitt and Dubner were deeply offended that someone would take them to task for their sloppiness. “I just don’t get it,” Levitt lamented, adding that he didn’t think that “any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth’s future” could attack the duo. Dubner dismissed the criticism as a “smear” and a “partisan attack.” The implication was clear: Only a person who cared nothing about the planet, or a complete hack, could possibly criticize Levitt and Dubner’s spunky, counterintuitive take.

Such is the state of counterintuitive journalism these days. It used to be that purposefully contrarian journals like The New Republic or Slate used this angle as a means of slyly critiquing received wisdom, with full awareness—as seen in Slate’s response to mockery of the Creed article—that opposing the conventional wisdom was no more a guarantee of truth than buying conventional wisdom itself. They accepted criticism of their methods in the way they hoped establishment institutions would, with Slate even using its 10th anniversary to give four of the magazine’s critics article space in which to air their grievances.

But as Levitt and Dubner’s response suggests, the burden of proof has shifted. If one echoes the conventional wisdom, one must be a pawn of the establishment. If one challenges it, one is a brave truth-teller. It is a convenient posture, allowing careless writers like the “Freakonomics” duo to publish straight-up falsehoods in mass-market books and plead persecution when called out. But it also permits contrarians to traffic in the same fallacies and factual errors of which they so often accuse more mainstream writers. Perhaps most alarmingly, it allows them to misidentify what “mainstream” views entirely.

This is the proximate root of the “Superfreakonomics” debacle. Levitt and Dubner wanted to write about global warming, but they wanted to do it in such a way that was original and impugned the status quo. From the book, it seems like the following characterizes the status quo: a corporate system that allows ever-escalating carbon emissions, as well as a government patently unwilling to expend the monetary and political capital needed to stop catastrophic climate change.

However, Levitt and Dubner decided that criticizing the real culprits would not be counterintuitive enough. So instead, they embraced a motley crew of technological cranks who dismiss proven technologies like solar power in favor of utopian, untested schemes like cooling the earth through simulated volcano eruptions. Thus, they ended up criticizing the dissidents trying to limit carbon emissions rather than the status quo that allows such emissions free rein.

This type of misidentification has led to disaster in the past. After September 11th, a similar contrarian impulse led liberals to use books like Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” and magazines like, yes, The New Republic to argue in favor of war with Iraq against a perceived “liberal establishment.” The end result: a sturdy liberal infrastructure backing the real establishment, namely the Bush administration, as it launched America into the greatest foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam. As with Levitt and Dubner, contrarianism was co-opted into vigorous support for the status quo.

Again, there is nothing wrong in principle with contrarianism that is accurately targeted and aware of its limitations. Indeed, it is often a helpful tool for challenging real orthodoxies. But, as Levitt and Dubner show, a self-serious, sloppy contrarianism only ends up entrenching the status quo it seeks to critique.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Kirkland House. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.

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