Fake Wisdom

When I first started writing, I used to get “false agreement”. This is when a comment claims to agree with everything you’re saying, but reveals that they actually believe the opposite in the substance of their message.

I used to blame this on reader illiteracy, but it was likely my failing as a writer. But now I feel there’s another factor at work, that some writing people will simply accept as being profound, regardless of any of its implications.

Self-help gets a lot of flak for being overflowing in this style of fake aphorisms, but this kind of thinking is prevalent everywhere. I discovered that if you word the message the right way, people will feel like they agree with you, even when they don’t.

Feel-Good vs Think-Good

If you’ve been reading here for some time, you’ve probably noticed a lot more disagreement in the comments than my earlier writing. But I consider this a success because it means I’m articulating my ideas in a way that people can actually consider them, instead of providing token acceptance.

Not all writing needs to be intellectual, as much as I prefer “think-good” to feel-good pieces, writing is more than just communicating ideas, just as music is more than just the literal content of lyrics.

That being said, I think a sign of a well-articulated idea is that you can imagine its opposite. My last post was about aggressive learning, which had some detractors as I outlined specifically what it implied and what it didn’t. I wrote a similar post which had fewer detractors because few people could clearly imagine an opposing concept.

Being Able to Imagine the Opposite

If I’m reading just to feel good, or to promote a particular attitude, perhaps deep reflection isn’t necessary. But, if I’m trying to implement something specific in my life, I try to ask myself what the opposite of a particular idea would be. If I can’t imagine it, that likely means the original idea is malformed.

Because popular writing tends to be evaluated on how compelling it is, being a “good” writer doesn’t mean you need to be very precise. In fact, I’d argue that many successful authors lack this quality, writing ideas where it is very difficult to clearly imagine any alternative hypotheses.

Since precision isn’t always highly valued, that puts the onus on the reader to try to make the idea more precise. Asking yourself what would be a contradictory theory is a good exercise in thinking about whether the idea is useful at all.

Good Ideas Have Objections

You could argue, since I have far more detracting comments in my later articles than my earlier ones, that my earlier articles were closer to the mark. An explanation is that I’ve come to believe increasingly ridiculous ideas in my old age.

But I think the sign of a good idea is that you can imagine an alternative. If you can’t, then either the opposite of the idea is so carefully hidden that you’re not truly evaluating the idea, or it simply doesn’t exist.

I had a discussion with someone about the Law of Attraction, in which I protested my disbelief. I argued that attitude clearly matters, and controlling attention certainly can alter your perception, but that this hardly justifies a complete rethinking of physics to believe so.

The person countered that he didn’t believe all of that, but still thought that LoA was generally true. My criticism is that if you can’t articulate a setting where the opposite of a piece of advice is even plausibly true, it can’t be very useful advice. So if LoA only means “having a positive attitude”, then it’s hardly the revolution it claims to be.

What’s the Opposite?

If an idea is going to change your life, it should give obvious implications. I like Cal Newport’s blog because his philosophy isn’t just that success follows from mastery, but that, as a consequence, “finding your passion” matters a lot less. Benny Lewis says speaking matters to learning languages, not-so-much for solo practice. Holistic learning implies memorization isn’t really important.

If the tradeoff of an idea, the counter-theory it suggests, is incredibly weak, then the idea is probably fake wisdom. It sounds nice, but since it implies so little, it probably isn’t very useful. Maybe good for an inspirational read, but probably not best to be a keystone of a new philosophy.

I’m not perfect in this regard either. My archives are full of early posts which fill a lot of space but imply little. But I strive to be better as a writer, even if that means provoking more (healthy) dissent.

Shifts in attitude can change your life, but so do changes in philosophy. And while a shift in mood is temporary, a shift in ideology can have long-lasting ramifications. That’s why good ideas matter, and why it’s worth hunting them down—even if you disagree with them.

  • Chris L

    I really hope this gets some traction.

    This idea/concept is very prevalent in political speech. Unless a politician says something that someone somewhere could disagree with…he didn’t really say anything.

    “Make America Strong” “Fighting for America’s families” “Hope and Change”

    People project whatever they want to on phrases like that…but they are ultimately meaningless.

  • Adam

    I’m seeing LessWrongian influence again.


  • Adam

    Also, I was a bit surprised at the beginning of the post because I still do see vacuous praise in the comments. I will trust that there is less. I think the important thing is that there is *more* intelligent comment interaction.

    P.S. I like helping people I like, even a very little. I’d just like to recommend the blog
    I think you’ll like it 🙂 [No, it’s not mine. My own blog isn’t very good yet.]

  • Kemi

    One word Mr Young! This!

    I so agree with this post. I have encountered too many self-help which in my opinion are not grounded in practical application because most are upon closer examination and deliberation ultimately empty. The law of attraction is one my pet peeves. Whilst I agree with positive thinking, there is also the fact that we exist in the real, physical world and cannot discount physics just because we feel like it.

  • Luciano Passuello

    Hi Scott,

    100% agree; watching for disagreement is a great way of measuring writing clarity.

    Intentionally or not, you just described Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability, which is essential to scientific thinking.

  • Andrew Yeh

    It’s the difference between a prophet and a peer. One who fills in nothing where there is something and one who argues a point that can be disagreed with. Disagreement makes all ideas better, but forcing people to only state ideas that can be disagreed with is kind of limiting.

  • Random

    So what you’re saying is that every perspective needs to be theoretically falsifiable. Eg “speaking matters to language learning” can be falsified by someone who learns a language perfectly and speaks very little.

  • Arjan

    Just wondering: is dialectics the only way to examine ideas? (That’s what this article implies, if I understand it correctly)

  • JB

    The reason I like your earlier articles more is that they had more substance not less. If you Skim through the article titles in the archives you will see that the vast majority of the core ideas are in the first year or so. The new articles are mostly about life philosophy and rehashes of your old ideas. Still worth reading IMO, but I don’t think I have taken any practical knowledge from them in a long time.

  • Michael

    If I reply with a comment that opposes this idea, saying it is incorrect, doesn’t that only support this idea then?

    What if, on the other hand, I can’t find anything wrong with your idea? What if I can’t find an opposing view? Does that mean then that this idea is flawed?

    It seems there is a paradox here. The only way to validate this idea is to invalidate it. Maybe I am missing something here. Perhaps you have spent some time thinking on this?

  • Matt

    Great, time-tested advice, not only for thought but for writing, too.

    Anybody writing an essay should remember that a good argument is specific and debatable — if you can’t imagine a counter-argument, then you haven’t thought things through!

  • Michael Dawson

    I don’t know if I agree with that malformed idea bit.

    If the idea is malformed, then you can clearly pick out its flaws. If you can find its flaws, then you can imagine an opposite. Just because you couldn’t find those flaws at that moment, doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea is flawed so to speak.

    It just seems like a paradox to me..

    But I do agree with you when you say that when you are thinking of an idea, you must imagine the opposite.

    Because if you do not imagine the opposite, then your side is going to be one-sided and won’t hold up as well to more articulate barbs of rhetoric.

  • Scott Young


    That’s been a personal choice as well, to shift away from “how to” style content and take a more intellectual bent for the website. Admittedly, that will disappoint some people, but it was a deliberate choice.


  • JB

    Yeah that is fine. But when I first came to this website i incorporated a good majority of the techniques you’ve talked about and it helped me out more than anything ever has. My life philosophy is pretty set in stone so I am mostly just looking for practical knowledge to “Get more from life”.