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


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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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. …

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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. …

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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. …

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. …

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

One sentence, eight months in, changed everything: “I admire you for still hanging in there.”

A flash of unexpected hope shot through my body. Was there a fellow human who understood?

No. Impossible. This was my fight and I had to win it on my own. Besides, I hardly knew her. How could she know?

Yet, I could hear it in her voice. She sensed what I was going through.

I needed to be sure: “How do you mean?” I asked, barely containing an urge to pour my heart out here and now.

“What you’re doing. …

What self-help articles fail to say

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Every time I open the internet, a headline like this hijacks my attention: If You Want to Be Successful, Do These 83 things.

I suffer from Fear Of Missing Out. I don’t want to be the loser who didn’t know about the latest lifehack. I click.

Like clockwork, a sigh of relief follows as I conclude that, once more, I haven’t been foolishly living my life ignorant of the new trick that would have made me a millionaire by now.

It must have happened 83 times already.

These listicles usually recite some variation of the classic self-help secrets. You know, things like waking up at 5 A.M., …

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That also pay off in your relationships

The most important thing on the journey of personal growth is that there should be progress. So long as you keep moving forward you will reach your destination; but if you stop moving you will never reach it. Not every change is an improvement — but every improvement is a change.

For instance, you can’t become stronger by holding on to the same beliefs you started out with.

Unfortunately, each of us thinks that on any given subject our thinking habits are already quite good. …

Because pain is as much a part of life as pleasure is.

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Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

Lots of self-help writers these days write about how goals make you feel terrible and therefore you’re better of without them.

For example, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, claims:

“Goal-oriented people exist in a constant state of failure or waiting for the goal.”

They’re wrong.

The Problem With Goals

Their thought is that goals make you feel (a) bad if you fall short and (b) ‘empty’ when you succeed. Either way, the joke’s on you.

Some sorrow when you to fail to achieve what you wanted to may seem like an unavoidable and not particularly bad or noteworthy fact of life. But, these authors urge us to consider, should we really accept it so uncritically? …

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Take a look at this Abraham Lincoln quote and think about it:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

What, you reckon, is the message here?

Whenever you set out to achieve something, it might come in handy to invest a lot in the tools you’ll be using to complete your quest.

Now, let’s say our goal is to have an awesome life.

Were we to apply Lincoln’s lesson to this goal, what would that amount to?

The answer might surprise you.

Perhaps even upset you.

Keep tabs on the life-philosophies to which you expose yourself

What instruments are available for living better and how can we ‘sharpen’ them? …

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Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Cognitive biases, personal growth, and rationality

When was the last time you made a conscious decision after more than a few seconds of serious thought?

Personally, I can’t recall the last time I stopped, paused, thought, dug in my head for a bit, made a choice, and went on with my day. Even if it only took a few minutes.

Can you?

These moments are quite rare, aren’t they? And yet, we make thousands of ‘choices’ every day.

You can imagine the huge impact the quality of your decisions has on our success.

However, if you compare people’s reasoning to scientific, statistical and logical standards, you’ll find large classes of judgments to be systematically mistaken. …

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Stop attaching yourself so much to the person you think you are

For years, I’ve been told to follow my heart by everyone and their mother.

The heart, after all, is the throne of the Real You. Untouched by what your peers have been whispering in your ears and Hollywood has been feeding your eyes. Pure you-ness.

The heart separates the things you want because you are you from the yearnings that are not, ultimately, really you. Its light exposes these less authentic aspirations as the polluted inclinations they are.

And if you follow the guidance of these pristine voices, you’ll, as they say, become who you already are. …

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Last summer, it finally happened.

My internal critic considered my life complete.

No more “I’ll be happy after I’ve got X or fixed Y.”

Six months ago I was weeping about the pointlessness of the PhD. Literally dreamt of having the courage to quit. Things are looking up now. And after being single for years, I’ve met an amazing girl. It gets even better: after an operation for bladder cancer, my dad is safe again. Not to mention how even my friends have things going for them.

There was, in other words, literally nothing left to do except be happy.

So when my girlfriend and I strolled out for lunch on this slow Monday morning after what felt like an ideal weekend, that’s exactly what I planned on doing. …

Hobbes, Milgram, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the banality of evil

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Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Humans aren’t bad, they’re not sinners, and certainly not evil.

It’s a common proclamation, people being immoral. At their core. Deep down. There are songs about it, books about it, tales about it, and religions based on it.

It lets us feel a little better about existing evil, and about the small unholy things we all do (yes, we know). Let’s all bathe in our rotten souls and absolve ourselves of responsibility.


Scientists have stopped believing in the myth of the wicked human, and you should too.

What’s the evidence?

Whether we should believe in a theory — whether about bacteria, gravity, global warming, or human nature — depends on the evidence supporting it. …

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Matt Damon playing Will in Good Will Hunting, solving a near-impossible math problem … as a janitor.

And what to do about it

My girlfriend and I watched Good Will Hunting recently.

It tells the story of Will Hunting, an off-the-charts genius, and his soul-crushing dilemma. Remain true to his roots and have a fine, normal, happy life with his hoodlum friends? Or set sail to maximize his potential instead — take the road fraught with failure, loneliness, difficulty, and pain, but with a ton more self-actualization on the way and possibly even world-renowned greatness at the end?

I’ve always been fascinated by the tension between needing to make the most out of life and being content with an ordinary, good-enough existence.

Some questions that keep me awake at night: Does long-term life-satisfaction require you exert yourself to fulfill your potential? Is there something wrong with not ambitiously developing your gifts? Or, alternatively, do strong desires for success merely spring from boredom-avoidance? …

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Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash

Most of us think we make choices because of who we are.

We wake up in the morning and open the closet; we feel we decide what to wear. We open the refrigerator; we feel we decide what to eat.

This seems sensible, but what “feels” right is not necessarily the truth.

We are social creatures, and oftentimes context (rather than personality) plays a big role in our decisions.

Subtle factors around us shape our behavior, but we fail to recognize those influences.

“Incidental stimuli”

In Mindware, social scientist Richard Nisbett lists a few of such what psychologists call “incidental stimuli” — hidden situational ingredients — that secretly shape our…

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“Anyway,” he said after making an insightful comment about people in a relationship with someone they met online. “That could also just be my traditionalist bubble.”

When I heard someone excuse himself for his “bubble” for the millionth time, I’d had it.

Do you really have to have been in a Tinder conversation with half the planet before you’re allowed to voice some reflection on digital romance at all, I thought.

I’ve noticed myself adding “but that could just be me” disclaimers to things I say too.

“I’m pro-immigration, but that could just be my academic bubble.”

It gives me a bad taste in my mouth every time still. …

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Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, optimism and how to live

Our intuition tells us that technology, social norms, movements, and ideas just move forward through time, as if progress is a river and those things are on a raft gliding through.

That the passing of time is sufficient for advancements to occur.

Well, it isn’t.

The river of time has no current, and there’s no wind either. The way stuff works is that by default, it stands still, and it advances only when someone pushes it.

I can tell you this for sure because, five years ago, when I lived in a dorm, I used to think problems actually did solve themselves. In fact, I learned later, the reason the shower reliably ‘magically’ regained its ability to function a few days after it broke down was called Dave. His screwdriver forever falsified my theory about problem-solving angels descending to earth and taking care of some issue in my life when I had accumulated enough karma points. …

On “pulling the goalie” and daring to look stupid

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The third season of Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant podcast has an episode titled Malcolm Gladwell’s 12 Rules for Life. Except, we find out a few minutes in, Gladwell doesn’t have 12 bites of wisdom to share, and he even feared he didn’t have any rules for living.

Luckily (for both him and us), he changed his mind after talking to his mathematician friends Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown from NYU.

Gladwell has one principle:

Pull the goalie.

Now, What the Hell Does That Mean?

In hockey, teams may “pull their goalie” and get a sixth attacker in return. Playing with an open goal sounds rather inconvenient, but consider that the losing side gains a lot by scoring, while suffering little if their opponents get one in. …

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High. Dangerous. Long way to go

Truth one:

“Our days are filled with the path to future skills, tasks and commitments that we believe we can’t possibly take on. We’ve seduced ourselves into believing that we’re not born with the talent, or that the obstacles to doing the work are just too great.” — Seth Godin

Truth two:

“Attempting [to have a huge positive impact on the world], would be immodest. …

When looking inside becomes looking away

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Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Neuroscientists can now identify how happiness and unhappiness are physically inscribed inside our skulls. They even report the precise parts of the brain that generate positive and negative emotions. And also uncover more and more neural explanations for why particular deeds like singing and loving and following Maarten van Doorn on Medium seem to improve our mental well-being.

As a consequence, a hard science of subjective affect is available to us, which we would be crazy not to put to work. …


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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