In the context of a very sad story illustrating the specific dangers of not recognizing pseudo-science and anti-science for what they are, hilzoy at Obsidian Wings (by far the best blogger out there IMO) hits on a much more general truth.

The combination of wishful thinking and the seductions of thinking that you have uncovered an important truth that the scientific establishment is just too blind, or too invested in its own hypotheses, to see, are clear. I’ve always thought that recognizing that contrarianism is an unworthy use of the human intellect is an important part of growing up, but I know enough people who haven’t yet learned this lesson not to find them surprising.

Just as I can understand getting addicted to crack, I can easily understand being contrarian even in the face of what ought to be convincing evidence, enjoying being the embattled advocate for what I took to be an unpopular truth, not being responsible enough about what I say in public, not wanting to admit my mistakes, and so on. And just as I can’t really understand ignoring all the lines, the boundaries, the warning signs that say: hilzoy! Pay attention! Your life is going completely, horribly out of control! that stand between me as I am now and me combing through a carpet looking for little rocks of crack, I can’t understand Christina Maggiore letting things go so far that she was willing to gamble with the life of her child.

I think that almost everyone wants to have their intelligence and insight appreciated. It’s part of why I maintain this site, I admit, and that’s something I share with every other blogger in the world. Unfortunately, some people expect more recognition than the actual uniqueness or originality of their insights will bring, and they lack the capacity for self-validation that allows them to settle for less, so they try to raise their profile with deliberate provocation. This phenomenon is apparent in everyone from in-your-face queens at gay rights parades to trolls on internet forums. It accounts not only for anti-science attitudes like Maggiore’s, but also anti-economic and anti-cultural ones as well. The appeal of referring to the “virtue of selfishness” (a.k.a. “greed is good”) is not just that it’s an interesting argument but that it’s an in-your-face rejection of Enlightenment principles such as utilitarianism and as such it gets people’s attention. Its value is not intellectual but social. “I have recognized this insight which the unwashed masses (and you specifically) have not, therefore I must be smarter. Worship my intelligence.” In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus I think this kind of hierarchy-creating (as opposed to peer-bond-forming) use of words and ideas is portrayed as classically male, but I think that way of looking at it is a bit anachronistic. It’s a distinct (ab)use of communication, but it’s not tied to one gender.

People who employ this tactic know it’s high-risk. They know that they’re likely to be proven wrong, and appear even dumber than before. That just doesn’t matter, because as far as they’re concerned all levels of recognition below that they desire are equal so the only thing that matters is that contrarianism offers some small chance of reaching that level whereas “following the crowd” (even if it’s a smart crowd) does not. They also know that they can sneak quietly away when they are repeatedly shown to be wrong and foolish, but they can shout from the rooftops on that one occasion when they achieve some sort of vindication. That one moment of glory is one more moment than they expect otherwise. Again the internet provides myriad examples of this behavior, as does the Bush administration’s loud braying about a few successes and sullen silences about its more numerous failures.

Contrary does not mean independent. Blind opposition to something makes one as much its slave as blind support does. Anti-fashion is just another kind of fashion. What the world needs is not more contrarian thinkers but more independent ones, who have developed the critical faculties necessary to recognize when an ideological enemy is right and when an ally is wrong, and who have the courage to say so when it happens. Of course an affected eclecticism is no better than an affected contrarianism, but at least it provides more variety. Real eclecticism, though, should be everyone’s natural state. It beats being either a mindless drone or a Rebel Without a Clue.