The little-known untapped power of casual criticism

A hard-won lesson from academia

Once upon a time, your host thought he'd try his hand at academia.

You believe that?

I felt about as "at home" in the university as I'd feel in a knife store full of methed-up psycho rapists.

Not exactly for the same reasons, mind you.

My time in the academy wasn't totally awful. But the plague of "wokeification" was already starting to spread its vile tentacles.

Not even in the most obvious ways. "Woke" begins with the infantilizing of the students. Treating grown adults like they're prepubescent children in need of constant supervision and a soft too-friendly voice.

It's insulting... but since most of the younger students have no frame of reference for how adults act they accept it.

If that weren't enough...

The bureaucrat bloat is out of control. It seemed like the only reason that they printed off all these grad students was to hire them for this year's crop of newly created admin jobs.

An organization doesn't get too much teaching OR original research done when there's 100 bureaucrats for every faculty member.

Teaching and knowledge are no longer the point of the institution.

But I did learn some useful things while there, like...

How to take a metaphorical knife to the guts and keep a smile on your face

I'm talking about the harsh realities of producing work in an academic environment.

And that's a "life skill" that generalizes to any discipline.

Every time you give a talk...

Every time you write a paper to publish...

You've to be ready for that cut-throat out in the audience sharpening his machetes.

He's out there, ready to blast you with an "Ackshually..."

That's the downside.

The upside is that (provided you stick it out and have a positive attitude) you learn...

How to detach your identity from the idea

I got to thinking about this while writing about The Singularity these last few days. The "rationalists" [sic] that worry so much about the "intelligence explosion" as a rogue AI gets out of control are some of the most thin-skinned and ideologically attached people you'll ever run across.

Almost as bad as capital-L Libertarians and their damn non-aggression principle.

They've built their whole identities... their self-image and sense of self-worth... around these ideas that they obsess over.

I find this weird now.

If I'm totally honest, I find it hard now to say that I believe in anything.

That wasn't always true. I used to be as attached to my beliefs as anyone.

It's not that I don't have ideas I like. The thousands of words written here ought to show you that.

But I don't have that kind of conviction to dig into a position and hold it like a stubborn mule as you find on social media.

Or do I?

There's a weird thing going on here.

I can defend most any position with the kind of argumentative force that only a small number of human beings can muster.

Cocky? Absolutely. It's also 100% stone-cold truth.

Most human beings don't care about clear, accurate, consistent thinking... even fewer still take the time to get honestly good at it.

Look around. Even in the trendy nerd-chic set you're going to find a LOT of smrt boys who believe that critical thinking means memorizing lists of logical fallacies and cognitive biases.

You find that 95% of people don't read shit. They repeat whatever slogans writhe their way into their brains.

The strange thing is, the better I got at constructing defenses for arguments...

The easier it got to be dispassionate about any idea.

Clear and accurate thinking is not just about picking out what's wrong. That's easy. Anybody can be a critic.

What's hard to do is thinking slowly enough... thinking with patience and charity... to see what's good about the other guy's argument.

When you can defend the other side as well as your own side, now you're thinking

Face it, most people out there... speaking of the echo chambers of "online"... are machines repeating slogans.

That "NPC" meme was a precision nuclear strike of rhetorical force.

Walking into a social media argument now is like walking into a kindergarten class.

That's not to say I believe just any idea. I'm less critical of other ideas, in some ways...

But at the same time I find I have more conviction in my own ideas even though I know they're flawed.

That's down to another thing:

When you get comfy criticizing your own ideas, you aren't nearly so uptight about them

It's relaxing to know that what you believe has plot holes the size of a Death Star.

So what? So does everybody's belief system.

When you accept this, a critical attack on your point of view is no longer a threat.

Chances are, you already know the weak points better than any of your critics.

You can take the criticism as feedback to strengthen your ideas.

You can ignore it, because who cares about the feedback?

When you get skilled at thinking accurately and clearly...

When you have the patience to really think instead of reacting...

It's almost like a game.

A needy ankle-biting troll is no longer a threat to identity that must be battled well into the early hours of the morning.

No... it's just a needy loser, someone to be pitied.

There's no greater victory than to pity the loser.

For everything else...

Why so serious?


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