Thank Goodness for Contrarians

by Richard T. Stuebi

One of my favorite bumper-stickers of all-time reads “My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma”.

In addition to being a wonderful word-play, the one-liner reflects my deep disdain for those who are far-too-certain of their positions — whatever their positions may be. I haven’t done any statistical analysis, but I often find that the strength of people’s opinions is inversely correlated with their knowledge of the subject.

So, it’s actually a service to be reminded by intelligent people offering alternative views with substantial supporting evidence that what we think we really know may not actually be truth.

In the energy realm, I’ve encountered a number of articles by or about very accomplished and expert individuals who don’t subscribe to conventional wisdom.

For instance, in late March, the Sunday New York Times Magazine ran a provocative article called “The Civil Heretic”, profiling the Princeton mathematician Freeman Dyson, who has been the subject of significant and hostile criticism for suggesting (as has Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist) that too much concern is being paid to the phenomenon of climate change.

On the oil front, Ruchir Sharma, the head of emerging market research at Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) wrote an article in the April 20 Newsweek entitled “If It’s In the Ground, It Can Only Go Down”. Sharma doesn’t buy the peak oil theory, and argues that the long-term trend of declining oil prices will re-emerge.

Even if you disagree with their positions, you can’t say that they are stupid people. There are grains of truth in their arguments that we are all well-served to recognize and embrace.

As stated so beautifully in The Tree of Knowledge by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela:

“The knowledge of knowledge compels. It compels us to adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty. It compels us to recognize that certainty is not a proof of truth. It compels us to realize that the world everyone sees is not the world but a world.”

We must be honest with ourselves in admitting that the future is not knowable with certainty in advance, and that all projections can at best be only grounded speculations. Being confronted by obviously smart and wise people who hold different views than ours about the future is a good exercise in humility for all of us. If we respond thoughtfully to considerate alternative views, we are driven to re-examine our own thinking and logic, and strengthen or alter it accordingly.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director at Early Stage Partners.

2 replies
  1. Norm
    Norm says:

    Well said. I like Lomborg's use of the scientific method, facts, data, and economics. The meming of green living to "be afraid, the end is near, and nothing you do can stop it short of near catastrophic action!" gets old.

  2. Panglos
    Panglos says:

    There was a time when neither global warming nor peak oil were even on our radar screen. That was our field of certainty. Those subjects were broached through the emergence and rise of contrarians. Of course, when contrarians make their case they become mainstream, and new contrarians arise to counter those who used to be the contrarians. This is as it should be. The problem doesn't lie in our recognizing "grains of truth." It lies in recognizing when those grains are sufficiently valid to justify further consideration. The tail can't wag the dog.

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