The Fallacy of the Rebellious Contrarian

Epictetus - Impossible to learn what you already think you know.A contrarian is “…a person who takes an opposing view, especially one who rejects the majority opinion…” ( In order to be a contrarian, one must be open-minded. They are usually highly skeptical and objective; they question the norm and seek out alternative points of view. An excellent example of a contrarian position would be the position that Islamic terrorism is a direct consequence of the United States government interfering in the affairs of Middle Eastern nation-states. Non-interventionists hold this position and it is often arrived at through substantial research and questioning of the status quo. Popular mainstream opinion holds that it is radical religious views that are the core motivation for Islamic terrorism and many, like former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul, have been laughed at by their peers when they try to argue in support of a contrary position.

Being a true contrarian– rather than a fake contrarian who simply wants to rebel for the sake of rebelling –is not easy. It comes with social consequences and sometimes even the shunning of the contrarian by their peers, friends, family, and colleagues. But contrarians are crucial to the balance that is necessary to maintain rational policy and overall cogent thinking in general. Once you stop seeking contrary ideas, you have stopped learning and have abandoned the quest for truth. Like the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

The fallacy of the contrarian manifests when they embrace a contrary point of view and become substantially intransigent. It can be argued that they become even more close-minded than those who never had enough skepticism to seek contrary positions in the first place. At this point they have fallen back into the delusion of their less skeptical peers; they believe everything is black or white and have become blind to various shades of gray. It is the Achilles’ heel of the contrarian to become so excited about their discovered position, and so distraught at the ignorance of others for not appreciating it and mocking them, that they forget to remain in their former state of skepticism. This is the point at which a skeptic departs from the contrarian.

A skeptic is a contrarian consistently; always questioning, always listening, always ready to learn and adjust their position for the greater pursuit of truth and not the continual stroking of their rebellious ego. For example, an atheist is a contrarian; an agnostic a skeptic. Why? Because atheists have closed their mind to the potential, even if minuscule, that the theists could be right. A skeptic can always, at any point in time, be swayed to a former position, or a new one, when presented with significant evidence. Dr. Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine demonstrated true skepticism when he retracted his position on climate change denial and observed that the abundance of evidence for climate change was not inconsequential, but rather it was strikingly convincing.

In their book on Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour explain that there are four levels of learning:

  • Unconscious Incompetence – initially we are entirely unaware of the existence of our gap in knowledge; we are ignorant.
  • Conscious Incompetence – we then become aware of our ignorance of a subject or idea and make the decision to pursue competence.
  • Conscious Competence – we are learning the new subject or idea and are deeply focused on it. For example, when you are learning to drive a car for the first time. This is the point at which you are truly open to new ideas and points of view. Like a child’s insatiable curiosity, you absorb new ideas like a sponge. You have no egotism or cockiness about the subject as you are well aware that you know very little about it. Bad teachers are, at this point, notorious for instilling their own points of view in their students; the bad liberal professor takes advantage of the student’s state of mind and “downloads” their liberalism into the student’s psyche.
  • Unconscious Competence – you become so good at the activity, subject, or idea, that you can express your competence instinctively without thinking about it. You drive the car without thinking about the amount of pressure to apply to the gas. This is the point at which intransigence and stubbornness sets it. You know that whole, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” thing.

In order to be a true skeptic and not just a contrarian, you have to restart this learning process. Contrarians are better than mainstream followers at returning to conscious competence but once that contrary position is grasped they become stuck in unconscious incompetence to the point of intransigence. All complex subjects and issues must be approached with conscious incompetence and then discovered within conscious competence over and over to fully appreciate the various shades of gray which encompass it. Read a book on the issue in a foreign language or simply read a book about it by an author you hate. Being a skeptic is more of an art than a science as it requires an individual to adjust their inner psychology and to denounce their ego; they must be willing to confront humility if they discover that their former position was asinine. In short, don’t be a stubborn dick, be a sponge so you may be drained and then re-quenched with an abundance of points of view.