Comments, observations and thoughts from two left coast bloggers on applied statistics, higher education and epidemiology. Joseph is a new assistant professor. Mark is a marketing statistician and former math teacher.
I thought of this* a while back as a possible classroom game but as I was working on another post it came to mind again, this time for its metaphorical possibilities.
The object of the game is to get from a word to to its antonym through a chain of roughly synonymous pairs in the fewest number of steps. For example, small and large.
Small can mean fine
Fine can mean excellent
Excellent can mean great
Great can mean large
Admittedly, some of these pairs stretch the relationship a bit but you get the general idea. (I'm tempted to segue into a discussion of Janus words here, but that's off the main topic and really ought to wait for another post). I'm not sure how well it would actually work as a word game but at least it makes a useful metaphor when discussing contrarian journalism.
The objective of contrarian journalism is analogous, describing something with an antonym of the word you'd normally associate with the thing. Like the game, this linking of antonyms is normally done through a series of steps that seem that seem more or less reasonable when viewed individually even though, taken together, they lead to an absurd conclusion.
More importantly, this kind of journalism is, at heart, also a game, a demonstration of cleverness, no more intended to produce meaningful insights than a game of Scrabble is intended to produce elegant verse. This isn't to say that counter-intuitive conclusions are bad. If a line of reasoning leads to somewhere surprising, somewhere conventional wisdom would never point to, that can be a very good thing (assuming you didn't reach that conclusion via a stupid mistake in your reasoning -- counter-intuitive often means wrong).
But if you start out with a counter-intuitive position and set out to find a just-good-enough argument to prop it up, then the whole exercise is no more productive than misusing the transitive property to claim that small means large.
*I'm pretty sure someone else thought of it first.