BIG IDEAS FORUM - The Grit in the Oyster


The Grit in the Oyster: In Praise of Contrary Opinion

“The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In the scientific, political, academic or corporate spheres the spirit of this age rewards conformity.

Dissenting views are silenced, often illiberally. To depart from the consensus is regarded as dangerous in many intellectual circles. Academics who plough an eccentric course are seen as deniers of truth rather than its interrogators.

Yet as John Stuart Mill explained in On Liberty, the freedom to state an opinion that runs against the consensus is a pre-requisite of human progress.

The cycle of changing paradigms that philosopher Thomas Kuhn says assists our quest towards scientific knowledge rely on a scientific method that aims to disprove assumptions rather than reinforce them. Intolerance of eccentricity reinforces groupthink in public and private institutions. The potential for costly mistakes is magnified.

How can contrarians be restored to their proper place in the debate? How can business and political leaders break out of the loop of positive feedback and garner counter intuitive advice?

Just as an oyster needs an irritant to develop a pearl, so irritation in civic debate leads a stronger, more resilient civilization.

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Professor James Allan I Garrick Professor in Law, School of Law, Faculty of Business, Economics & Law, University of Queensland I Author of Democracy in Decline: Steps in the Wrong Direction and The Vantage of Law: Its Role in Thinking about Law, Judging & Human Rights

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Nick Cater I Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre I Author of The Lucky Culture I Columnist for The Australian

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Dr Tony Moore I Senior Lecturer, Communications & Media Studies, Monash University I Author of Death or Liberty: Rebels & Radicals Transported to Australia, 1788-1868 and Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians Since 1860

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Christopher Snowdon I Director of Lifestyle Economics, The Institute of Economic Affairs, London I Journalist and author of The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic & Prohibition Since 1800, The Spirit Level Delusion and Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking