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The counterintuitive conventional wisdom

Speaking of bizarrely counterintuitive articles, and with the ostentatious contrarianism of Super Freakonomics still on everybody's mind, it's worth saying that there's nothing contrarian about being contrarian in elite intellectual circles. Indeed, the really contrarian move would be to try to make your way as a thinker without taking aim at somebody's sacred cows, or at least making it seem like you're taking aim at somebody's sacred cows. There's a reason the book "Everything You Know Is Wrong" is not titled "Most of The Things You Know Are Right."

Back when I was at The American Prospect, we used to think of the magazine as being counter-counterintuitive. There were a lot of positions that were considered counterintuitive -- liberal hawkery, for instance -- but were in fact elite conventional wisdom. TAP took special pride in running arguments against these positions. Scott Lemieux's article defending the "intuitive" position that it would be better for choice if Roe v. Wade remained in place stands as the best example of this tendency. Early on, it tracked how a counterintuitive thought became something more like an elite consensus:

It is difficult to know when a contrarian idea has been repeated so much as to become the new conventional wisdom. At least in prominent liberal media outlets, however, the argument that pro-choicers would be better off abandoning Roe v. Wade has probably crossed the line. In The Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Wittes' 2005 article asserting that Roe v. Wade has been deeply unhealthy for abortion rights was followed up by a similar (although more detailed and nuanced) article in the June Atlantic by Jeffrey Rosen, also a prominent Roe critic in The New York Times and The New Republic. Richard Cohen opined in the pages of The Washington Post (after sniffing that he no longer see[s] abortion as directly related to sexual freedom or feminism) that liberals should untether abortion rights from Roe. Slate's William Saletan took to the Post op-ed pages also to argue on behalf of moving beyond Roe and to dismiss the decision as obsolete. The argument usually contains an added political component -- that overturning Roe would prove a boon to Democrats by waking a majority pro-choice electorate from its apathetic slumber.

The conceit behind counterintuitive articles is that the author is taking an intellectual risk. But that ceases to be true when counterintuitive articles become the norm. At that point, the author is just trying to be relevant. In fact, Jonah Weiner's defense of Creed is one of the first self-consciously counterintuitive articles I've seen in some time that actually does represent some sort of risk. I mean, c'mon: Creed??

By Ezra Klein  |  October 21, 2009; 3:40 PM ET
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In much of the scientific world, including my own niche in plant ecology, reliable knowledge is usually terribly costly in terms of time and/or analysis. Peer review in reputable journals tends to be pretty careful.

As a result, while there's plenty of surprises and controversies, the world of American Scientist is quite different from that of American Prospect, not to mention the Freakonomics stuff. (Thanks, by the way, to Brad DeLong for putting so much effort into taking apart Freakonomics on climate change).

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | October 21, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, have a look at Harold Bloom's "Anxiety of Influence." What's true for imaginative writers and lit critics is true for writers generally: you define yourself in opposition to/rebellion from a predecessor (often a revered one). Interesting perspective from DaveoftheCoonties aabove to the effect that this impulse is restrained in the hard sciences (to a degree) by the demand for verifiable data.

Posted by: sprung4 | October 21, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

What DaveOTC said.

And "Everything You Know Is Wrong" is not a book that has much currency in "elite intellectual circles." Neither is "Blink," or "The Wisdom of Crowds." The whole contrarian thing is a pop intellectual trend.

Posted by: Bloix | October 21, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

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