A contrarian is a person who takes up a contrary position, especially a position that is opposed to that of the majority, regardless of how unpopular it may be. Contrarian styles of argument and disagreement have historically been associated with radicalism and dissent.
Contrarian tropes in journalism
Contrarian journalism is characterised by articles and books making counter-intuitive claims, or attacking what is said to be the conventional wisdom (a phrase attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith) on a given topic. A typical contrarian trope takes the form "everything you know about topic X is wrong".
- Amateurs are more knowledgeable than experts (attributed to James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds)
- Boys are the biggest victims of sex discrimination (attributed to Christina Hoff Sommers, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men)
Slate magazine has collected a set of parodic proposed contrarian titles appearing on Twitter. Writer Juliet Lapidos observed, "Maybe it's contrarian for us to say so, but some of these are quite brilliant."
- The New York Yankees deserve to be loved, but not for the reasons you think.
- Wings: Better than the Beatles, or just different?
- What's the giraffe's most distinctive feature? Hint: It's not the neck.
Supporters and critics
Paul Krugman has criticised "contrarianism without consequences", in relation to the debate over global warming, and in particular, the controversy over the book Superfreakonomics, saying "The refusal of the Superfreakonomists to take responsibility for their failed attempt to be cleverly contrarian on climate change is a sad spectacle to watch ... having paraded their daring contrarianism, the freakonomists are trying to wiggle out of the consequences when it turns out that they were wrong." The Economist has suggested that the critical response to Superfreakonomics may represent the end of contrarianism as a popular style of journalism, quoting the Crooked Timber blog description of contrarianism as "a cheap way of allowing ideological hacks to think of themselves as fearless, independent thinkers, while never challenging (in fact reinforcing) the status quo.”"
Contrarianism and nay-saying
Contrarianism is different than mere dissent and authentic disagreement in various settings such as academic, policy making, personal, social and more; sometimes a contrarian position is taken to gainsay and nay-say another person's statement, and, as is evidenced in the word "gainsay", the motivation is not to give an accurate counterpoint, but rather a misguided attempt to appear "better" by using a contrarian argument. Such arguments are often weak and rely only on rhetoric as they reflect as the nay-sayer's pessimism. Some have said it is an attempt to deny clear evidence merely for political gain, as is done by certain industries when it comes to important evidence of public safety and medical concerns that could affect the sales of the companies in the industry. Another form of this is found on some Internet forums, in comments that contain flaming rhetoric or defamatory statements, while providing negligible logical or factual background.
Such naysayers tend to be disagreeable and frequently start sentences with the word "but" in response to another persons statement. Such sentences that are started with the conjunction "but" are often filled with rhetoric and little to no content in such contexts. It is said that one shouldn't start a sentence with a conjunction, that is, one shouldn't start a sentence with the word "but." Some technical controversy about the use of conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence exists, however, in practice, the word "gainsay" can be seen as connoting the social violation of putting down others for selfish gain, for example the tragedy of the commons shows how selfish action in society can lead to its degradation and thus similarly why it is inappropriate to gainsay others.
Contrarianism in science
In science, the term "contrarian" is often applied to those who reject a general scientific consensus on some particular issue, as well as to scientists who pursue research strategies which are rejected by most researchers in the field. Contrarians are particularly prominent in cases where scientific evidence bears on political, social or cultural controversies such as disputes over policy responses to climate change, or creationism versus evolution.
Writers on scientific topics commonly described as "contrarian" include David Berlinski, a critic of mainstream views on evolution, and Richard Lindzen, a critic of the scientific consensus on climate change. Bjørn Lomborg, who claims to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, but argues against action to mitigate it, has been called "the poster boy of the contrarian trend".
A contrarian investing style is one that is based on identifying, and speculating against, movements in stock prices that reflect changes in the sentiments of the majority of investors.
- Everything you know about the 1960s is wrong, Salon.com, November 24, 2012
- Krugman, Paul (23 October 2009). "Contrarianism without consequences - NYTimes.com". The New York Times.
- "Telepathic Supreme Court vote counting". The Economist.
- "Copenhagen climate change conference 2009: climate contrarians". The Daily Telegraph (London). 25 November 2009.