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Challenging conventions: The vital role of contrarians in shaping policy and knowledge

Published on 18 August 2009
Updated on 05 December 2023

Editorial note: In an era marked by cancel culture, Aldo Matteucci’s examination of contrarians gains new relevance. As we navigate a world quick to silence dissent, this piece illuminates the crucial role of contrarian voices often targeted by cancel culture. It invites readers to reflect on the delicate balance between challenging norms and the rapid judgment that defines our current cultural landscape.


A madman is someone who draws correct conclusions from false premises.
– John Locke

In the years spent at Diplo, I have indulged my taste for contrariness. I have been called ‘Resident Contrarian’, part in jest, part in frustration, and sometimes in anger.

Surviving as a contrarian is far from easy, for one easily oversteps the bounds of forbearance. One must have a point, and it better be relevant and important, or saturation will ensue. And even then (I’d say – particularly then), the bearer of contrary tidings is rarely forgiven: recognition is a coin that seldom passes through the hands of a contrarian, as Cassandra’s myth reminds us. Then there is the issue of style: when mixed with sepulchral hectoring or power-grabbing, it quickly becomes tiresome.

A contrarian must be perceived neither as an intellectual nor a political challenge or he will be swiftly suppressed. This is why in the past contrarians were jesters, whose role was viewed as both essential and marginal.

Galileo before the Holy Office, a 19th-century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury.
Galileo Before the Holy Office by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (Wikimedia).

Checking statements

But has contrariness any use beyond its entertainment value or one of vulgar criticism? I’d plead for its central role in the epistemological search for ‘truth’, which ought to inform rational policy.

In a deductive paradigm, we derive ‘truth’ from first principles. Policies based on deontological principles, on the ‘will to power’, political ‘command and control’, and utopian idealism are all avatars within this paradigm. Here the contrarian is granted a limited or supporting role: checking logical nuts and bolts underlying statements derived from the axiomatic truths—essentially the role of a mechanic in the logical machine, best kept deep inside the bowels of the good Ship Utopia. For, provided the logic is impeccable, such derived truths have the same’ truth content’ as axioms—together they stand or fall. There is no room for organic improvement, only heresy or revolution might emerge.

The inductive mode—observing reality and adapting to it—never does yield ‘truths’. At best we have provisional conjectures that survive temporarily until challenged. As we test them through predictions, only negations, but never affirmations, emerge.

Karl Popper has highlighted this dialectical process of ‘creative destruction’ by which we asymptotically approach knowledge. Policy is the orphan in this process—from ‘optimal’ it is downgraded to ‘best effort’ or ‘good enough’, necessarily overturned as experience changes consciousness. As consolation degrees of freedom are obtained, there are many such lesser policies. Here, in my view, the contrarian has the core function of challenging received wisdoms, and in so doing forcing a continuous reappraisal. He is the opposing pole in the dialectical process, and he needs to be with the captain on the bridge.

Karl Popper, influential philosopher of science, known for his revolutionary ideas on empirical falsification and critical rationalism. He fervently advocated for liberal democracy and the open society, integrating diverse political ideologies in his thought.
Karl Popper, influential philosopher of science, known for his revolutionary ideas on empirical falsification and critical rationalism. He fervently advocated for liberal democracy and the open society, integrating diverse political ideologies in his thought.

If only life were so simple…

Two illusions

For one, life is chaotic—inherently unpredictable, hence irregular. The contrarian will try to focus on singularities, while the planner will try to optimise periods of limited random change. Both are right, but the planner is mostly in command, for singularities are rare events, which usually happen when one least expects it. Meanwhile, life is administration.

Our mind craves regularity and patterns. Having achieved a higher level of consciousness, we need to see the world as orderly or we’ll despair. As we look back into our past, we discover historical patterns—lines that connect the dots—even though this may be no more than seeing faces in the moon or channels on Mars. No longer can we separate chance from purpose, so we ascribe all historical events to conscious purpose. Long chains of causation seem so plausible to our preset mind. It is difficult to challenge the view that intelligent design may shape and rule the world at will. The contrarian’s role is to prick these and other illusions.

Two such illusions I may specifically mention. One is the problem of silent evidence. For one lucky draw at the lottery, millions had to go empty handed—sheer bad luck. Life kicks up winners for us to admire—our solitary heroes and statesmen—and silently buries the masses of losers. In hindsight, it all looks preordained, and repeatable, if we only imitate the winner. As we focus on success and blithely ignore failures, we do not realise our practising ‘cargo cult’. In addition, we never get to experience or assess the ‘roads not taken’. We do not honour equally those who won at war and those who averted one, for we cannot imagine what they saved us from.

The other illusion is confirmation bias. No sooner have we established a conjecture than we spend much effort in searching for confirming evidence. As we find it, we feel comforted in our views. But confirmation is not affirmation, which only follows from controlled experiment. As Nassim Taleb argues, if the hypothesis is that only white swans exist, looking at all of them will not prove that there is no black swan. Checking them all is a waste of time as it is misleading, while looking for a possible black swan is faster and more economical in approach.

By focusing on contradiction, rather than confirmation the contrarian drives and accelerates the process of evolutionary adaptation.

First lottery in Finland, 1971.
First lottery in Finland, 1971 (Wikimedia).

The role of the contrarian in diplomacy

Diplomacy is past and future history—hence it is chaotic. We do not advance through the thickets of chaos thanks to ‘theory’, but through contradiction—trial and error. Regrettably, in order to infuse some order into the chaos of international relations, diplomacy has tended to rely on protocols, precedents, and rituals, which are a special form of confirmation. Consequently, diplomacy’s greatest danger is self-reference, stasis, and involution.

In The Hindu of June 26, 2009, the Indian conglomerate TATA advertises: ‘From today, question every answer.’ This should be the guiding principle of every diplomat and teacher of diplomacy.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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