Contrarianism and T&L

The whole ESRI debate surrounding the working paper of economist, Richard Tol, has been interesting. I know little about economics and less about Prof. Tol, so I’m not going to talk about him except that to say that he, and a picture of him in last Saturday’s Irish Times got me thinking about contrarianism. It was not so much his picture but the books in the background, presumably his office. Along with the many books on economics and mathematics, one book especially caught my eye: The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg who is a statistician by training and something of the Godfather of contrarianism. This book argues that the consensus view on a lot of environmental and related issues is not supported by the available data. I think the BBC Environment correspondent got it right when he wrote the following review, the link for which I’ve lost:

“I am neither a statistician nor a scientist, and I lack the skill to judge Lomborg’s re-workings of the statistics of conventional wisdom. But I am worried that on virtually every topic he touches, he reaches conclusions radically different from almost everybody else. That seems to suggest that most scientists are wrong, short-sighted, naïve, interested only in securing research funds, or deliberately dancing to the campaigners’ tune. Most I know are honest, intelligent and competent. So it beggars belief to suppose that Professor Lomborg is the only one in step, every single time.”

I actually tried to read Lomborg’s book a good while ago (being a bit of a contrarian myself at times) but found it a bit boring and disingenuous in places. At one point it seemed to be suggesting that the extinction of some species was insignificant in the grand scheme of things. That may be true, but I the think the Gorilla or the Snow Leopard or the Black Rhino might just score a little higher on the species importance scale than rare plants and insects.

The psychology of contrarianism is interesting because let’s face it, the establishment is right most of the time. My own view is that a lot of it comes from frustration at the rise of group think in some fields and is, perhaps, the reason for my ongoing irritation with the whole T&L ‘movement’.

Very few T&L initiatives have been subjected to rigorous testing in my view. Even the question of how to validate a teaching method is very difficult to answer. There are very deep questions to be explored here regarding the very nature and purpose of education. Furthermore, and this is the key point in my view, assessing the quality of any approach to education is impossible unless one can somehow control for the inherent motivation and commitment of the students.

Yet, everyone seems convinced that the trend towards dividing knowledge into ‘bite-size’ chunks and doing more and more for the student, often just to help them ‘engage’, is the correct way to go. There is now a big hullabaloo about how we can actively ‘foster’ independent and critical thinking as if this was some radical new concept. But, hasn’t that always been the essence of a University Education? Independent thinking was never ‘fostered’, it was taken as a given because no one was doing the thinking for you. Guiding you, maybe.

I think it was Einstein who said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. As we continue to pander to students (There! I’ve said it!), standards are declining consistently. A few contrarians are badly needed to challenge the consensus. And maybe, we’re right some of the time.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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4 Responses to Contrarianism and T&L

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Contrarianism and T&L

  2. cormac says:

    I suspect the Tol paper was withdrawn for precisely the reason the ESRI stated, i.e. that it had major flaws. The controversial figure in question has been revised from 40% to 4%, which is not disputed by Tol – this gives you an idea of the sort of margin of error in this sort of study.
    From his writings, I gather Tol is quite a fan of Lomborg. This is interesting as most scientists find Lomborg understands almost nothing about climate science, and routinely conflates quantifiable scientific uncertainties in climate science with the sort of massive uncertainties in ecomomics displayed in the estimate above. Economists have an important role to play in the climate debate, but not ones that have been shown to be as comprehsively wrong as Lomborg (see recent book by Shiel)

    • foleyg says:


      A few years ago I read a book called “The River” (I forget the authors name), who was suggesting that AIDS developed from the vaccine programs in the fifties. It was a massive tome and a fantastic detective story – really well researched. It, too, has been proven wrong using bioinformatic tools, as far as I know. I suppose the difference between being a good scientist and a contrarian is that a good scientist knows when to admit when he/she is wrong. As a physicist, you probably know lots of contrarians, like that guy Lubos Motl who seems obsessed with debunking the climate change consensus and comes across as slightly deranged.

      These guys can be useful, though, unless, of course, their ideas get hijacked by poiticians – then things become dangerous.

  3. cormac says:

    Yes, Lubos springs to mind, there aren’t too many physicsists with that sort of certainty. he is so opnionated, I can’t see him acknowleding evidence that doesn’t support his views ..

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