Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Contrary to what contrarians say

There is a tendency, especially among those who view themselves as being shut out of the system, to accept any and all contrarian positions and to reject the word of authority. No one is more capable of walking the along this contrarian path than Steven D. Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of the new bestseller "SuperFreakonomics."

The authors are working the talk show circuit, appearing this AM on GMA where they pontificated on the effectiveness of car seats for children (marginally better than seat belts) while they suggested that regulations got in the way of finding more effective solutions to the real problem, that of keeping our children safe.

They picked a rather benign example for the show, easy to understand and illustrate. They ducked the major issue, that of climate change, even though it is headlined on the cover of the book (subtitle: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and why Suicide Bombers should byLife Insurance.)  The exerpt that GMA gives you to read is clearly about climate change with no chance of their having to answer questions.

Climate Scientists cited in the book have loundly complained that their positions were mis-characterized or even invented out of the rarified air of contrarian polemic.  Climate Progress's Joseph Romm, himself a physicist and one time official of the Dept. of Energy, has made extraordinary efforts to set the record straight, outlining in great detail just where Levitt and Dubner got the facts wrong, beginning here, and continuing again, and again and again.

Unfortunately, we have some sort of propensity to believe what we read on the internet, or in a book, as long as it is positioned as being critical of accepted knowledge.  Thus, we have the anti-vaccine movement when the facts show that vaccines have save millions of lives.

Sometimes, being a contrarian makes good sense.  It allows investors to buy low and sell high.  But, it also pays to due your homework and invest your energy in those ideas, issues, products that have solid evidense of their truth behind them.  The argument that climate contrarians must be right just because a contrarian named Galileo was right does not make sense.  It is a false anology just like SuperFreakonomics is leading us down a false path.  The consequences could be fatal.

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