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.


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