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In praise of contrarian thinking

By Sven Wunder, Douglas Sheil & Robert Nasi

Diverging forecasts and climate science

A Danish proverb says: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future”. More so in a world that seems more uncertain than ever, and where we cannot always rely on the past to infer changes into the future. But how do we societally deal with the inevitable diversity of views about the world’s future? Are we making the best of available intellectual capital to benefit humanity? Or are we, in the name of popular convenience, underutilizing the power of critical reflection and innovative contrarian ideas? Do we need more alternative perspectives to challenge negligent mainstream thinking? These are fundamental questions in addressing major societal crises from global economic imbalances to biodiversity loss, climate change and the approaching tipping points in planetary-wide mechanisms.

Remarkably, climate scientist James Hansen recently stated that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is already unattainable, thus going against a consensus of his peers that 1.5 degree remains both scientifically possible, and politically an imperative. Hansen thus found himself viewed as a contrarian and his colleagues’ response was punitive. Indeed, the harsh replies linked positive and normative aspects: arguably, if we buried the collective 1.5-degree goal, climate mitigation policies would also become jeopardized. This despite the inconvenient observation that for the first time on record, global warming has exceeded temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius over a 12-month period.

The United Nations body for assessing climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emphasizes consensus among scientists. Yet, science itself has always depended on disagreements to review, refine, and improve what we consider our best pictures of reality: when science refuses to be challenged, it becomes a dogma. The IPCC’s blunt focus on the necessity of agreement unfortunately makes it often unable or unwilling to discern constructive criticism from undermining action. At the same time, climate scientists find their work to become politicized and polarized; almost any claim is followed by a chorus of complaints and dissent: a critique-dismissive attitude has become an understandable if unfortunate coping strategy.

When politics subdues science – and linguistics

Climate science is not unique in its crowd behaviors. Various recent examples exist where our allegedly pluralistic-democratic societies have, under strong pressures, gone into crisis mode, enforcing strict rules to ‘close the ranks’ and exclude alternative viewpoints from being heard – only to later change course, forced by emerging realities.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic different countries adopted different governance models, ranging from Swedish liberalism to Chinese hyper-lockdown, tolerating no contradictions against the respective official position in public debates – although scientific foundations to deal with a novel problem were tentative, and policies eventually had to be revised. Still, anyone attempting to call into question the dominant paradigm would get their fingers burnt; self-censorship ensured effective societal streamlining.

Nowhere is this trend better reflected than in the linguistic metamorphosis of the German word Querdenker (literally, “diagonal thinker”). Dictionaries explicitly denote two meanings: the original positive connotation of an independent, innovative thinker whose out-of-the-box ideas and views are often misunderstood, vs. the current harmful interpretation: a contrarian advocate against public COVID policies who disseminates “fake” news. The original contrarian-appreciative image of a free spirit and a constructive provocateur has thus in an Orwellian Newspeak-like transformation given way to negative framings.

Galileo_Galilei_at_his_trial_Wellcome_V0018717
Contrarian thoughts on trial: Galileo Galilei before the Inquisition, Rome, 1633. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.

Contrarian views in biophysical sciences

Among scientists themselves, novel-thinking judged contrarian usually faces an uphill struggle. Many young scientists aspire to generate paradigm-shifting insights but are encouraged instead to conservatively toe the line. Hence, revolutionary ideas were throughout history often initially ridiculed. Ludwig Boltzmann’s work on thermodynamics was not widely accepted during his lifetime, and he famously faced a barrage of rejection which allegedly contributed to his suicide. When geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock first described jumping genetic elements (“transposons”) her peers for years “didn’t take it seriously”. Dan Shechtman discovered in the early 1980s the existence of a five-fold “forbidden symmetry” in crystals, but fought for decades to convince his disbelieving established peers; he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2011. Many Nobel Prize winners had their prize-winning science rejected by academic journals.

As for forests, a good contemporary example that some at least might judge contrarian is the “biotic pump” theory. It claims that the condensation of water over forests creates negative pressure drawing in wind, moist air and ensuring further rain.  The theory puts traditional thinking on its head: atmospheric circulation is not driving the hydrological cycle; conversely, the hydrological cycle allegedly drives the mass circulation of air. This mainstream-challenging theory is still rejected by many climate modelers, even without conclusive evidence. But if the theory was to be substantiated, rapid deforestation over recent decades would have far-reaching climatic consequences. As the journal Science noted, Anastassia Makarieva, the main scientist behind the theory, is “an outsider: a theoretical physicist in a world of modelers, a Russian in a field led by Western scientists, and a woman in a field dominated by men”. Without her novel thinking, our possibly deficient climate models would not have been challenged. Yet, if Makarieva was proved right, it would add another compelling reason to why forest conservation matters.

Modern science depends on peer review to determine what is and isn’t published in prestigious journals. This process has inevitable strengths and weaknesses. Quality control is essential to prevent us drowning in bad data and dodgy arguments, but plenty of bad articles still pass the review process in an inflationary publication context, while some important ones find themselves excluded. More transparency may be one way forward. One innovation is to publish preprints—this is already conventional in physics, and becoming common in biological and environmental sciences. Another is to encourage open peer review where submissions and reviews all become publicly available documents, whether accepted or not.

Contrarianism in the dismal science

Arguably, no profession currently flocks as avidly around a predefined mainstream as do economists – so it makes for the perfect example. Correspondingly, economists are terrible forecasters. As an old joke says: “God created economists to make weather forecasters look better”. In parenthesis, meteorologists have now improved their forecasts substantially: they need no divine interventions to look good. Economists in turn seemingly do. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) Christine Lagarde recently in Davos denounced economists as “a tribal clique” [with] “blind faith in their models”. Notably, also the ECB’s own track record of forecasting inflation is abysmal.

Hence, if among 50 polled economists all unanimously believed the stock market to go up, this per se would be a contrarian predictive sign the market will go down: all investors have thus already bought stocks; nobody’s left to convince to buy. This contrarian indicator of investor sentiment readings is thus used to time market trading. Similarly, headlines in The Economist and other popular magazines can be contrarian indicators of sentiment extremes at an ending trend. For instance, a “Death of Equities” headline preceded a great bull market in stocks, a “King Dollar” headline a decline in the currency’s value. Hence, when a magazine’s editor finally has been convinced of a trend’s existence, turnaround is near: ‘the trend is your friend, until the end when it will bend’…. 

Safeguarding creative diversity of thought

In sum, in science as in politics we need contrarian thinking more than ever: if we were all to think ‘inside of the box’, we would soon run out of innovations. In principle, our democratic societies are based on pluralism. But when crisis rears its ugly head, which it has done in recent decades, our societal tolerance of different perspectives become lowered: we tend to close our ranks to exclude ‘diagonal thinking’ – in ways that in their end results move us closer to the totalitarian states that we remain keen to distinguish ourselves from.   

The much bigger problem really lies with all of us: crowds are often wrong at critical historical junctions in their business-as-usual thinking. Decision-making based alone on either popular vote or top-down decrees both often fails. When too many people are overly convinced of an apparent truth, this is usually the right time to rethink it. Open debate and sharp thinking are needed; science can provide key inputs here. We often need the seemingly tedious opposing voices to challenge our mainstream view, and to elevate debate. It is necessary to defend spaces for constructive disagreement. At all decision-making levels, from the corporate firm to national government, we thus need to safeguard and further encourage a diversity of views and the power of contrarian thinking to inform and ensure better judgments in response to our societal problems and challenges.

This blog post has also been published in the Wageningen University & Research Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group (B)log.

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