Contrarian on Questions


Continuing with the recent theme of methodology, Robin Hanson, who holds an appointment in the Economics Department at George Mason University, writes often about rationality and decision theory, and is chief author at the Overcoming Bias site, has advice for contrarians. Observing that knowingly disagreeing is irrational or dishonest, he says contrarians should not aim to be contrarian in the positions they hold or the answers they defend, but in the questions they ask.

Academia has well known biases regarding the topics it studies. Academia is often literature-driven, clumping around a few recently-published topics and neglecting many others. Academia also prefers topics where one can show off careful mastery of difficult and thus impressive methods, and so neglects topics worse suited for such displays. Of course academia isn’t the only possible audience when selling ideas, but the other possible customers also have known topic biases. For example, popular writings are biased toward topics which are easy to explain to their audience, which flatter that audience, and which pander to their biases. The existence of these known topic biases suggests how to be a more accurate contrarian: disagree with academia, the popular press, etc. on what questions are worth studying.

It seems to me that this just is one of the methods of philosophy. I remember being taught: look for where the author says “undoubtedly” or “certainly” or “of course” or “intuitively”, for it is the claims with these labels that are undefended, and about which we can raise questions. But perhaps it is suspiciously self-serving of a philosopher to say this. Are there other, better, or more robust ways of being contrarian on questions in philosophy? Who are the philosophers who are contrarians on questions?

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