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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I.

One thing Covid-19 taught me is that humans have a norm of liberally tolerating contrarians when the stakes are low and it would take decades to be proven right, but shunning contrarians when stakes are high and events are moving fast.

Seeing as how they ended up in a global crisis anyway, some folks have taken it upon themselves to volunteer with the online coronapolice in order to enforce this norm. …


Talking morals and not consequences is deceptive: we have similar values. So: how much do we really want people to participate in politics?

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Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

I.

Law professor Ilya Somin, author of Democracy and Political Ignorance, says, “The sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance is shocking to many observers not familiar with the research.” Political theorist Jeffrey Friedman adds, “The public is far more ignorant than academic and journalistic observers of the public realize.”

Some examples:

  • During election years, most citizens cannot identify any congressional candidates in their district. Only 29 percent of American adults can name their congressperson, let alone discuss their congressperson’s voting record. Oh, and citizens generally don’t know which party controls Congress.
  • When asked, “What percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid?” voters typically estimated 25 percent, and said they thought 10 percent was an appropriate level. In fact, American “bilateral foreign aid” clocks in at only 0.6 …


Privilege, truth and lived experiences

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Source

Last week, I said that one of the things this blog is about is how societies come to some kind of public understanding of truth. That’s rather vague, so consider this post an example.

As WaitButWhy’s Tim Urban nicely illustrated last Thursday, you have a lot in common with every other human, but there’s also a lot about every other person you’ll never fully understand.

As a consequence, I might be unable to grasp certain things others experience, or see certain things apparent to them.

For example, I’m a white male and have lived a relatively sheltered life. …


Introducing the renewed blog

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Not long ago, punishing wrong believers along with wrong beliefs was the specialty of the right wing. That was what McCarthyism was all about. Today, the left wing has joined in.

Thus we see Bari Weiss leaving the New York Times with an eloquent resignation letter condemning how everyone not woke enough is the subject of bullying. “They have called me a Nazi and a racist… some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one.”

Which mirrors the sentiment shared in HarpersLetter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by many of the most popular writers and academics online, in which they worry that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted: Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic studies.” …


Why you don’t need to worry about lying politicians, fake news, or filter bubbles

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Photo by David Werbrouck on Unsplash

A lot has been said recently about ‘post-truth’. If you’re at all interested in understanding our culture, the term seems to show up everywhere. The usual narrative runs like so:

Each of us lives in our own bubble. Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there. As a result, our individual abilities to separate accurate ideas from wrong-headed assertions are deteriorating. All we do is reject evidence that contradicts our favorite politician by declaring the source to be unreliable on the very grounds that it tells a different story than the one we’d like to be true. …


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Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Understanding the constitution of knowledge (and the new attacks on it)

Why do you believe what you believe?

Over the last months, I’ve become fascinated by (a) how each of us comes to accept something as true and (b) how societies come to some kind of public understanding about truth. Playing around at the intersection of these questions has been immensely insightful for me. Today, I want to transmit some of that enthusiasm to you.

It will be a long ride, but your understanding of knowledge and truth will never be the same.

This essay has two parts. In part one, we’ll look at how we come to know we know what we know. I’ll introduce terms such as ‘indirect knowledge’, ‘a public understanding of truth’ and ‘the constitution of knowledge’. The second half focuses on a worry that our beautiful system of knowledge is breaking down. Ideas such as ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’, and ‘filter bubbles’ will be central to that discussion. …


There’s joy in saying ‘I don’t know’

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Photo: Westend61/Getty Image

As my girlfriend likes to remind me, 95% of what I say is a formulation of something I’ve said before. Whether I’m talking about football with friends or debating philosophy with colleagues, I fire out cached replies like a robot prompted by trigger words.

Zonal marking? “Bad idea.”

Socrates? “Overestimated.”

Steven Pinker? “Deserves more credit.”

Animal consciousness? “It exists.”

Education? “Broken.”

Most people I know respond the same way. Our days are filled with re-hashes of familiar arguments and counterarguments. We race through conversations, trying to show how we’re a person like this and definitely not that. …


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Focus

When life gets overwhelming, return to your values

“Hey you! Look over here — you should really care about this thing I’m being indignant about! My thing is really important and you’re a bad person if you don’t give a fuck about this.”

Today, everywhere we turn, someone attempts to force-enter our consciousness. There are a lot of people screaming, “Pay attention to this thing I’m indignant about over here!”

Due to the transition into a digital attention-economy, the natural boundaries for input have disappeared. Anything and anyone can get to us, anytime. …


If you really want something, you don’t care where the motivation comes from.

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Photo by Unsplash on Unsplash

“I think the problem is a lack of intrinsic motivation,” a friend recently justified his decision to give up trying to learn to meditate.

He had been at it for a while. By his standards. “It has been a few weeks now and the routine still feels like a chore,” he explained with a sense of desperation. “I really want to master mindfulness, but I still have to make myself sit down and watch my breath. It feels like studying for high school exams I hated all over again. That’s not how it should be. I quit.”

A feeling of helplessness washed over me. I had a hunch where this was going. “But you’ve noticed concrete improvements,” I tried nonetheless. “The other day you mentioned how you caught yourself in a negative thinking spiral and turned it around. Doesn’t that convince you you’re learning a useful skill?” …


They show who you trust, more than what you believe

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Blind trust

Imagine I show up at your doorstep, look you in the eyes and speak: “Tell me, I’m curious, what do you think about Brexit?”

By all appearances, I’m attempting to unearth your beliefs. I’m interested in what you take to be true, or perhaps in your opinion about what to do. And, on the surface, my reason for doing so seems to be that I’m in the middle of figuring out what to think or do myself.

Well, maybe, yes, sometimes.

But on most occasions, I’ve found, humans have a different motivation for probing opinions.

Not that kind of information

The reason is simple.

Nine times out of ten, people already made up their minds. And they aren’t looking for an update (don’t flatter yourself). It’s not that kind of information they’re after. …

About

Maarten van Doorn

PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

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