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You.  Yes, YOU!  You're rather bright, aren't you?  Intelligent, smart.  Let's face it a little-known genius!  And you have a unique opinion on just about everything.  Not specifically one subject.  Because you're a contrarian. or as I like to call it: a "brainiac". 

We all know one or two of those particular individuals... Okay, one.

Nevertheless you see...  Sometimes. there is really such a thing as being too intelligent for your own good.  Enters the contrarian...


The Contrarian or "Brainiac"

So, what exactly is a contrarian?

According to the Urban Dictionary, a contrarian is

a) Someone who automatically tends to take the opposite point of view from the person to whom they're speaking, or to disagree with society at large out of a sort of knee-jerk reflex.
b) Someone who likes to be the opposite of the majority or have the opposite opinion of the majority.  Someone can be a contrarian because they don't like people, like to be different, thinks that the minority is better or just like getting on people nerves.
c) A person who disagrees with the mainstream or accepted view because he believes it makes him look good and feeds his ego, not because his argument is well thought-out or rational.


The Smug-Faced... Know-It-All... Contrarian... Twit.

By definition, a contrarian is someone who takes up a contrary position, especially one opposed to that of the majority, regardless of how unpopular it may prove to be.  Contrarian journalism is littered with articles and books making counter-intuitive claims, or challenging conventional wisdom.

In science, the term "contrarian" is often applied to those who reject the scientific consensus on some particular issue, as well as to scientists who pursue research strategies which are rejected by the majority of researchers in their field.

Contrarians are particularly prominent in cases where scientific evidence bears on political, social or cultural controversies, in particular disputes over policy responses to climate change or creationism versus evolution.

Scientific contrarianism is frequently referred to, favourably, as skepticism.  However, it has also been criticised as a form of denialism.

Science writers commonly described as "contrarian" include:

  • David Berlinski, a critic of mainstream views on evolution,
  • Richard Lindzen, a critic of the scientific consensus on climate change,
  • Bjørn Lomborg, who accepts the scientific consensus on climate change, but argues against the action taken to mitigate it - "the poster boy of the contrarian trend".


The Advantage of Going Against the Grain

In business, a contrarian investing style is one that is based on identifying, and speculating against the movements in stock prices that reflect the changes in sentiments of the majority of investors.

Besides that, contrarianism is often associated with intellect.

Indeed, a basis of intelligence is the ability to distinguish accurate knowledge from any other kinds of information.  We do this as individuals in much the same way that we do this in science: through critical rationalism oriented towards falsification.  In other words, we test information by considering how we might show it to be false, inconsistent or incoherent.

The habituated form of critical rationalism is contrarianism.  If a contrarian encounters any information - fact, idea, thesis or observation - their first cognitive reaction is to invert it or vary it.

Doing so is an efficient first step because

  • This is the 'low-hanging fruit' of falsification: it requires no real analysis of evidence, research, reflection, or contextual knowledge.  All it does is simply invert or vary the argument's elements and common knowledge.
  • Despite being so easy that it can be an automatic, it often falsifies information, if not by demonstrating that it is untrue, at least by exposing how easily varied or flimsy its backing is.


But if contrarianism is simply a productive, easy element of critical rationalism, why is it a "thing"?  Why is everyone not being a contrarian?  And why is it associated with intelligence?

Because contrarianism has a cost.


The Social Cost of Being a Contrarian

For many human beings, in many situations, the falsification of potential knowledge is not a goal in itself.  Conversations can be concerned with expressing affection, setting a mood, signalling allegiances, passing time, performing identities, and countless other aims.

In such types of interaction, the information expressed is not being submitted for critical review or evidentiary analysis.

Contrarianism does come with a cost as critical rationalism competes with the other aims in social interactions.  This is because subjecting such information to falsification interrupts the flow of the interaction.  Even more crucially, it is often irrelevant, counterproductive, and it can prove harmful to its very purpose.

An example of this type of behaviour might involve a contrarian standing up at a wedding ceremony to ask:

David, Jean, I hear you both.  But...  Is it actually very realistic to make representations about your feelings and intentions four decades in the future?  I mean, did 10-year old Jean know what 30-year-old Jean wants?  It's unlikely.  Therefore, how can you presume to know what 70-year-old Jean will want?


And about that reading from the Holy Bible...

Since internal contrarianism can remain undetected, it is external contrarianism of that type that most people mean when they employ that term: an automatic adoption of contradicting premises which goes against overall interaction aims.

Hence the association between intelligence and contrarianism.

The Intelligent Contrarian?

While all humans are contrarians in some areas, not all humans are contrarian in many areas or all areas, or even areas outwith their own specific interests.

Critically rationalist people - especially those who self-identify as smart - are often habitually contrarian in many or all areas.  They are more interested in falsifying knowledge, or in showing others that they are wrong.

Those all-out contrarians might also be unaware or less concerned with the social cost.  They may feel that they are socially or morally elevated by their contrarianism.

Whatever their internal reasoning, the result is that contrarians habitually try to falsify information they encounter, sometimes in situations or contexts where others would not - a habit associated for both cognitive and social-cost reasons with intelligence.

Yes.  Sometimes. there really is such a thing as being too intelligent for your own good.

The refusal of brainiacs to take responsibility for their failed attempt to be cleverly contrarian is  indeed often a very sad spectacle to watch.

And be careful, if you keep going...  Well...  Let's be honest...  All brainiac that you are...  You might as well stoop to the level of a "numpty".


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