Saturday, December 12, 2009

When contrarianism is and isn't good

Some examples:

A contrarian business venture: excellent! May a thousand business flowers bloom! If you think Stirling engines are the wave of the future, or horse buggies, or private space planes, and want to sink your money into it, well, you go, girl! (Or guy.) Of course, most new businesses fail, even the ones that aren't trying to break the mold, but the businesses that make it help move progress forward.

A contrarian business venture financed with my money: well, hold your horses, there. Now we're talking about something with a potential downside. I'd have to be incredibly convinced before I'd bet my money that the rest of the business world is wrong. And I'd still be likely making a mistake in investing.

A piece of contrarian scientific research: excellent! May a thousand scientific research avenues bloom! Why bother proving something that science has long suspected but not firmly proven, when you can overturn your entire field instead. Again, it could be a waste of your time and someone's research money to attempt to prove something that 90% or more of the world's experts think is wrong, but Galileos do come along every few centuries - maybe it's your turn!

(Hypothetically) doing my thesis to prove contrarian science: you can probably figure out where this is going.

I'm going to speed this up.

Contrarian investment firms and contrarian scientific careers: this is a way to spread your contrarian bets. You can be wrong lots of time and score big the few times you're right. Whether it's really the best long-term strategy is another question. I think it might work a little better for investment firms than for a single scientist, because the firms can make a lot more bets than a scientist can do research projects.

Betting your nation/planet on a single contrarian economic or scientific policy: shall we switch the country to the gold standard? I'm sure there are a handful of economist PhD.s out there who say this is a good idea and "the only way to avoid the imminent economic collapse". Same question of whether we ignore the vast majority of scientists on climate and follow the few, allegedly-brilliant iconoclasts who say differently. When there's no way to spread your bets, at least not at any one time,* betting the farm on the tiny minority position is about as smart as betting the farm usually is.


This was intended to be my last followup to the Superfreakonomics issue, and generally on why contrarian policy choices, done not as an experiment but as an all-out commitment, are incredibly risky. Also relevant to a wiki discussion on whether describing Richard Lindzen as a contrarian is somehow a huge slur against him, as opposed to simply describing his career strategy and possibly his temperament.

*There is the option of changing your policy choice at a later date. This is another reason for skeptics to lighten up - they seem to be convinced they're going to be proven right in less than a decade. Any economic damage they see after 2020 from reducing pollution won't happen - the policies will have changed, and we'll have plenty of money to build statues in their honor.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.