Silence is Stupid, Argument is Foolish

When I was young, I never backed down in an intellectual argument.  Part of the reason, admittedly, was that I was starved for abstract debate.  Before the internet, anyone who wanted to talk ideas had to corner an actual human willing to do the same.  Another big reason, though, was that I didn’t want to look stupid.  A smart person always has a brilliant riposte, right?  And if you shut up, it must be because you’re stumped.

At this stage in my life, much has changed.  Public debates aside, I now only engage in intellectual arguments with thinkers who play by the rules.  What rules?  For starters: remain calm, take nothing personally, use probabilities, face hypotheticals head-on, and spurn Social Desirability Bias like the plague.  If I hear someone talking about ideas who ignores these rules, I take evasive action.  If cornered, I change the subject.

Why?  Because I now realize that arguing with unreasonable people is foolish.  Young people might learn something at the meta-level – such as “Wow, so many people are so unreasonable.”  But I’m long past such doleful lessons.  Note: “Being unreasonable” is not a close synonym for “Agrees with me.”  Most people who agree with me are still aggressively unreasonable.  Instead, being reasonable is about sound intellectual methods – remaining calm, taking nothing personally, using probabilities, facing hypotheticals head-on, spurning Social Desirability Bias, and so on.

In classic Dungeons & Dragons, characters have two mental traits: Intelligence and Wisdom.  The meaning matches everyday English: high-Intelligence characters are good at solving complex puzzles; high-Wisdom characters have a generous helping of common-sense.

Using the game to illuminate life: Running out of things to say in an argument is indeed a sign of low Intelligence, just as I held when I was a teenager.  A genius never runs out of rebuttals.  At the same time, however, joining a fruitless dispute is a sign of low Wisdom.  You have better things to do with your life than tell hyperventilating people all the reasons they’re wrong.  A really wise person won’t merely break off such exchanges, but stop them before they start – and get back to work on his Bubble.

Here, in short, is wisdom: Be not a hostage to your own intellectual pride.

P.S. How do you know if a person plays by the rules until you actually engage them?  Most obviously, watch how they argue with other people!  If that’s inadequate, give promising strangers a brief trial period, but be ready to disengage if things go south.

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The Easy Road Does Exist, But It Is a Scam

Always be on guard when someone offers to make something easy for you. Run like hell. They are stealing away an opportunity for growth.

Of course, they aren’t promising you something that isn’t real. The easy road does exist. Most everyone takes it.

Learning that’s easy gets you mediocre knowledge. Training that’s easy gets you mediocre gains. A moral code that is easy yields unearned arrogance but not much character. Relationships that are easy yield shallow connection.

Meanwhile the people who have worked hard at these things are laughing at the people who take the easy road. If you go the easy way, you (ironically) make the harder way easier for them. Savvy? There’s less competition at the top if you voluntarily stay at the bottom – which is where “the easy way” will take you.

If you (like me) would like to break the habit of taking the easy road, it helps to remember this. There’s something about feeling like a mark that puts a chip on your shoulder – and there’s no motivation like a shoulder-chip.

Most people in a position to make things easy for you are people who either 1) had things made easy for them or 2) have done things the hard way and don’t care if you join them in the halls of glory. The first kind has not enough wisdom to make things easy for you (their way will make things harder), and the second kind will remain your superiors so long as you accept their offer.

Don’t.

It’s safe to assume that anything worth having takes work (this is the cliche) – and more work than you’ve planned on doing (this is the insight). Growing up in America we are given so many dreams at a young age that we assume they are all possible, and so we assume they are all easier than they really are.

This blog post is likely futile. You must take the easy road and come to the end of it (or see someone else do the same) a number of times before you realize. But a bit more suspicion of the people inviting you to take it might be in order. They are probably not consciously malicious, but their invitation will cheat you out of something you ought to work toward.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Stories Open Doors

Learning to tell stories is an incredible skill. But learning to think in stories is even more fundamental.

A narrative arc is more memorable and impactful than factual bullets. The ability to create narratives is what allows attracting friends, collaborators, investors, customers, and fans.

Storytellers are interesting people who get interesting opportunities. Not just those who tell anecdotal tales, but those who weave all of life into layers of narrative. The price of wheat is not merely an economic fact, it’s part of a story that started somewhere and will end somewhere. And it’s probably nested in other stories.

But telling stories starts with thinking in narrative arcs instead of dots.

I’ve seen this illustration several times (I’m not sure the origin):

Data To Wisdom Via Information, Knowledge & Insight ...

These are all different ways to see facts. But none of them weave a story. There’s no narrative in the dots or the colors or the lines or the connections or paths. They are facts with relationships, but they stop short of a narrative arc. Yes, there is wisdom in seeing that point A follows a path to point B. But why? How? For what purpose? What happened when the path was completed? What was going on before?

A narrative thinker will see these facts and be able to construct a story – a beginning, middle, and end – with motivations and purpose involved. Stories have teleology, facts do not.

The ability to see a meaningful story in any person, event, or series of facts leads to the ability to communicate in narratives. You can connect dots for reasons, and show the future if the dots continue to connect.

Thinking in story helps you be more interesting because it helps you be more interested.

When someone tells you, “I’m an engineer”, instead of filing this as a fact in your mental Rolodex, you immediately want to know the story. How did they end up an engineer? Is this the end of a long journey, the beginning of a new story, or the middle? Curiosity drives you to ask good questions, good questions make connections, and connections lead to opportunities.

Discovering, telling, and re-telling your own story is a great place to start. Why are you sitting there reading this right now? What led you here? Why? What does it mean for the future?

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POTUS Thirteen Through Eighteen

POTUS Thirteen Through Eighteen

I’ll say again, the Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 shortfallen.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very unwieldy word).  But I have practically no regard for the intellects of any of the half-dozen listed below.  With the exceptions of the monstrous pair, Lincoln and Grant, the other 4 are bound for the abyss of the forgotten.  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been a POTUS places a black mark on that career.  Few (ie none) have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the downward slide to the oval office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the third six (13-18):

  • Millard Fillmore

It is not strange… to mistake change for progress.

  • Franklin Pierce

The dangers of a concentration of all power in the general government of a confederacy so vast as ours are too obvious to be disregarded.

  • James Buchanan

Has the Constitution delegated to Congress the power to coerce a State into submission which is attempting to withdraw or has actually withdrawn from the Confederacy?

  • Abraham Lincoln

No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.

  • Andrew Johnson

There are no good laws but such as repeal other laws.

  • Ulysses S. Grant

 … the most confident critics are generally those who know the least about the matter criticised.

But every person who has served in furtherance of this benighted office, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

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Why Logic is Unpopular

Value hierarchies are inevitable. What value belongs at the top to make sure the others stay in their proper place?

The ancient Greeks spoke of three perspectives: pathos, ethos, and logos. From a pathos perspective, emotions and feelings take center stage. From an ethos perspective, reputation and tradition are what really matter. From a logos perspective, reason is what guides to wise action.

The Primacy of Logos

There will always be tension between people with different values and tendencies, and this tension often manifests most obviously in politics. Most people are driven primarily by instinct (pathos) or tradition (ethos), which is why self-described “liberals” consistently find themselves at odds with self-described “conservatives”. Some few are driven primarily by reason (logos). Logic is unpopular because it calls into question both instinct and tradition.

In politics, instinct-dominant (pathos) people seek validation of their feelings and messages that make them feel good, usually because something sad/scary/unfair is presented along with an easy solution that would make everything better. Tradition-dominant (ethos) people seek assurance that the messenger is trustworthy, usually because they are part of the in-group or because they signal about duty and allegiance to established institutions like governments and churches and against out-groups and their institutions. Reason-dominant (logos) people seek to establish the truth of ideas and messages, even when it causes them to subordinate natural tendencies and inherited traditions to come into consistent harmony with the wisdom they cherish.

By Their Egocentric Biases Ye Shall Know Them

If you aren’t sure whether you’re dealing with a pathos-dominant person or an ethos-dominant person, you can look for patterns in their behavior.

Typical emotion-driven behavior:

  • Tend to engage in hot cognition with motivation bias
  • Feelings/intentions valued over facts/results (“it’s more important to be morally right than factually correct” or “that wasn’t real socialism”)
  • Easily scared/overwhelmed, and therefore easily controlled (“we need to do something!”)
  • Furious “mama bear” overreactions when challenged
  • Confuse “open minded” with “empty headed”
  • Oppression narratives with victimhood as a status symbol (various privilege/equity/social justice/forced redistribution schemes)
  • Anecdotal NAXALT fallacy and tactical nihilism in response to statistical evidence

Typical tradition-driven behavior:

  • Tend to suffer from the illusion of asymmetric insight and base rate neglect
  • Obedience to authority valued over truth (“it’s the law” equivocation)
  • Retreat to dogma and orthodoxy when challenged
  • Pearl-clutching fear of ambiguity and change (belief that the only alternative to the status quo is chaos)
  • Confuse “consensus” with “evidence”
  • “Might makes right” crusade narratives
  • Tendency to oversimplify patterns and overlook exceptions

The Cure for Irrational Tribalism

A society that subordinates reason is destined to corruption and ruin as the fruitless scramble to justify and rearrange prejudices to satisfy confirmation bias replaces the quest for truth. Narcissistic moral relativism and political power struggles only escalate the conflict. It is only by subordinating emotion and authority to wisdom that can we avoid catastrophe.

“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.”

– J. Reuben Clark

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I Was a Fool vs. I Am a Fool

“I’m so sorry for the way I acted. I was a fool.”

I’ve had some times when I’ve had to admit to other people (or to myself) my foolishness. I’ve looked back on times in my life when I was so sure I was wise and so wrong about that – and tried to admit my mistake.

Exhibit A: high school, when I was too cool and too smart for my town, my church, family, etc.

When I meet folks from this time, I sometimes feel compelled to apologize for how I acted or seemed back then. Usually when I’ve had these conversations, though, I’ve made a mistake. I’ve said “I was a fool.”

The mistake here is not saying (accurately) that I *am* a fool now. I’ve seen enough revolutions around the sun to know that my understanding is constantly developing, and that every six months I can look back with embarrassment on the “me” of six months ago.

Given that embarrassment and growth in self-knowledge is coming down the line, I probably shouldn’t speak in any way to suggest that foolishness is a one-time mistake on my part. Instead, when I apologize for my foolishness, I should recognize the foolishness of now as well as the foolishness of the past.

“I’m so sorry for the way I acted. I am a fool.”

This is probably the most honest way to put it, and the most realistic. As even Socrates is said to have understood, we know nothing or very close to it. No use pretending that our path to wisdom is a one-failure-and-done kind of affair.

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