On the shoulders of giants



From an Almanack?

from The Economist Espresso app

from The Economist Espresso app

Food for thought

The father of sin was theft; every one of the Ten Commandments boiled down to “Thou shalt not steal.” Murder was the theft of a life, adultery the theft of a wife, covetousness the secret, slinking theft that took place in the cave of the heart. Blasphemy was the theft of God’s name, swiped from the House of the Lord and sent out to walk the streets like a strutting whore.

-Stephen King, The Stand



from The Economist Espresso app

Dunning-Kruger effect

“…ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

-The Descent of Man, Vol.1, page 3

Skepticism vs. cynicism

These two words are often used interchangeably, but they’re not really the same thing. If we’re going to engage in critical thinking, we need to learn to exercise skepticism without being cynical. It can be a pretty easy trap to fall into. They’re both uncountable nouns, but there’s a significant difference in application.

  1. Skepticism is doubting the truth of a singular thing, or claim.
  2. Cynicism is more pervasive, broad distrust of human nature.

I try to to apply this my own life by thinking of skepticism as questioning a claim, but cynicism as disregarding the person that makes it. And it can be really tricky to not become cynical toward somebody who is repeatedly wrong. It’s like the boy who cried wolf; sooner or later it just becomes easier and more efficient to disregard everything they say. E.g., one of my childhood friends lives in his own make-believe land and I have a very hard time believing anything he says. He’s a very nice guy, but he’s full of it.

The problem with disregarding a whole person or source is plain from another idiom: even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. When you get right down to it, cynicism is more like misanthropy than skepticism.

The specific example I keep in mind to check myself is Glenn Beck. For the most part, he’s a fear-mongering Alex Jones-lite conspiracy theorist. History and simple fact-checking prove him wrong an overwhelming majority of the time. The cynic could then simply right him off as a lunatic and disregard him. With a batting average as poor as Mr. Beck’s, it seems like it would simply be more efficient to blow him off. But I can never forget an episode of his TV show where he made a profound statement and blowing him off would have resulted in missing it.


click to embiggen

It was his 12/06/2012 show with Penn Jillette, the speaking half of illusionist duo Penn & Teller, about Libertarianism. Glenn and Penn don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, but rather than cynically disregard everything the other has to say they discussed things like mature and rational adults. (That’s not even where I meant to go with this example, just a happy coincidence!) During his monologue, Mr. Beck said people tend to think the right/left divide about Democrats and Republicans when the real scale of governing is between totalitarian and anarchy. There are tiny details that we could quibble over, but the reality is Glenn Beck came very close to realizing and talking about horseshoe theory. (Coincidentally, I’ve had a post on horseshoe theory saved as a draft in my to-do list, so that may be tomorrow’s essay.)

When it comes to critical thinking, propaganda, and the reality of how governments work, this is no little thing. This is a profound, and often historically true statement. This is why I do my very best to try not be cynical and simply disregard a person or source out of hand. They just might be right.

By all means, be skeptical. Always investigate claims, because what is true is more important than what we want to be true. Just do your best to avoid becoming cynical. It can be very difficult and I struggle with it myself, but that blind squirrel from the idiom is a person just like you. They have thoughts and emotions, too. In skepticism of a claim, try to reinforce that you’re not questioning them as a person. The claim and the claimant are two different things, even if claimants sometimes forget that. Exercise the Golden Rule and treat the claimant with kindness, even if they’re wrong. A lot. Because none of us are correct 100% of the time.

  1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skepticism
  2. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cynical


Finding one’s voice

My wife gave me some feedback from yesterday’s essay and I think she’s exactly right. I lost my voice. I was so busy laying the groundwork and establishing premises for future writing that I got lost in the details and cranked out a really dry read.

The worst part is, I think I knew it before I hit publish.The only parts of yesterday’s post I was really proud of was my almost-pun at the beginning, and a joke about Birkenstocks that was lost in a bunch of psychology jargon. When I wrote the shoe joke, the sudden feeling of joy I got from it should have been a clue to how boring the rest of it was.

Obviously, I can write a decent research paper. The problem is nobody reads research papers for leisure.

So I’ll chalk that one up to still growing as a writer. I would very much like my blog to be inspirational, though that word seems almost garishly overdramatic. I’m not pausing to look up better words in a thesaurus today- this is almost stream of consciousness. I want to grow as a writer, which probably means I should read more as well, and I want this blog to be thought-provoking. There. I found the word without using a thesaurus, after all.

I want to write things that will get people to think. I don’t want to play fast and loose with exclamation points or bold, underlining, and italicizing. I want to write good content. I want the content to be where the value is. I want to get people to use critical thinking, realize there’s more to the world than the 50 mile radius around them, and to be curious and explore.

Finding my voice in that pursuit is going to be tricky. There are very few educational experiences that are also fun, and I think that’s what I’m trying to achieve. I’ve never really wanted to write a novel, but I used to be fairly decent at story-telling. Factual events and things have stories, too. Maybe that’s what I need to work on?

TL;DR: Yesterday’s post was boring, and I apologize. I will do better.