Tag Archives: Cynics

How Idealists Aid Cheaters

Humans have long used norms to great advantage to coordinate behavior. Each norm requires or prohibits certain behavior in certain situations, and the norm system requires that others who notice norm violations call attention to those violations and coordinate to discourage or punish them.

This system is powerful, but not infinitely so. If a small enough group of people notice a minor enough norm violation, and are friendly enough with each other and with the violator, they often coordinate instead to not enforce the norm, and yet pretend that they did so. That is, they let cheaters get away with it.

To encourage norm enforcement, our social systems make many choices of how many people typically see each behavior or its signs. We pair up police in squad cars, and decide how far away in the police organizational structure sits internal affairs. Many kinds of work is double-checked by others, sometimes from independent agencies. Schools declare honor-codes that justify light checking. At times, we “measure twice and cut once.”

These choices of how much to check are naturally tied to our estimates of how strongly people tend to enforce norms. If even small groups who observe violations will typically enforce them, we don’t need to check as much or as carefully, or to punish as much when we catch cheaters. But if large diverse groups commonly manage to coordinate to evade norm enforcement, then we need frequent checks by diverse people who are widely separated organizationally, and we need to punish cheaters more when we catch them.

I’ve been reading the book Moral Mazes for the last few months; it is excellent, but also depressing, which is why it takes so long to read. It makes a strong case, through many detailed examples, that in typical business organizations, norms are actually enforced far less than members pretend. The typical level of checking is in fact far too little to effectively enforce common norms, such as against self-dealing, bribery, accounting lies, fair evaluation of employees, and treating similar customers differently. Combining this data with other things I know, I’m convinced that this applies not only in business, but in human behavior more generally.

We often argue about this key parameter of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. Cynics tend to say that it is hard and necessary, while idealists tend to say that it is easy and unnecessary. This data suggests that cynics tend more to be right, even as idealists tend to win our social arguments.

One reason idealists tend to win arguments is that they impugn the character and motives of cynics. They suggest that cynics can more easily see opportunities for cheating because cynics in fact intend to and do cheat more, or that cynics are losers who seek to make excuses for their failures, by blaming the cheating of others. Idealists also tend to say what while other groups may have norm enforcement problems, our group is better, which suggests that cynics are disloyal to our group.

Norm enforcement is expensive, but worth it if we have good social norms, that discourage harmful behaviors. Yet if we under-estimate how hard norms are to enforce, we won’t check enough, and cheaters will get away with cheating, canceling much of the benefit of the norm. People who privately know this fact will gain by cheating often, as they know they can get away with it. Conversely, people who trust norm enforcement to work will be cheated on, and lose.

When confronted with data, idealists often argue, successfully, that it is good if people tend to overestimate the effectiveness of norm enforcement, as this will make them obey norms more, to everyone’s benefit. They give this as a reason to teach this overestimate in schools and in our standard public speeches. And so that is what societies tend to do. Which benefits those who, even if they give lip service to this claim in public, are privately selfish enough to know it is a lie, and are willing to cheat on the larger pool of gullible victims that this policy creates.

That is, idealists aid cheaters.

Added 26Aug: In this post, I intended to define the words “idealist” and “cynic” in terms of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. The use of those words has distracted many. Not sure what are better words though.

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Who Wants Standards?

Most of us live in worlds of conversation, like books or blogs or chats, where we tend to give many others the benefit of the doubt that they are mostly talking “in good faith.” We don’t just talk to show off or to support allies and knock rivals – we hold our selves to higher standards. But let me explain why that may often be wishful thinking.

I’ve previously suggested that coalition politics infuses a lot of human behavior. That is, we tend to use all available means to try to help “us “and hurt “them”, even if on average these games hurt us all. Coalition politics is a dirt that regularly accumulates in most any corner that is not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

This view predicts that coalition politics also infuses a lot of how writings (and speeches, etc.) are evaluated. That is, when we evaluate the writings of others, we attend to how such evaluations may help our coalitions and hurt rival coalitions. Especially for writings on subjects that have little direct relevance for how we live our lives. Like most topics in most blogs, magazines, journals, books, speeches, etc.

However, while we may find such cynicism plausible as a theory of rivals, we are reluctant to consciously embrace it as theory of ourselves. We instead want to say that we mostly evaluate the writings of others using different criteria. And when we are part of a group that evaluates writings similarly, we want to say this is because our group shares key evaluation criteria beyond “us good, them bad.”

Now some groups can offer concrete evidence for their claims to be relatively clean of coalition politics. These are groups who declare specific “objective” standards to judge writing. That is, they use standards that are relatively easy for outsiders to check. For example, outsiders can relatively easily check groups who evaluate writings based on word count, or on correctness of spelling and grammar. Yes, a commitment to such standards may favor some groups over others, such as good spellers over bad spellers. But it can’t be adjusted very easily to shifting coalitions. Which makes it a poor tool for supporting coalition politics.

Some groups say they judge writings based on their popularity in some audience. And yes, it can be pretty easy to evaluate the popularity of writings. However, it could easily be the audience that is using coalition politics to decide what is popular. Thus using popularity to evaluate writings doesn’t at all ensure that coalition politics doesn’t dominate evaluations.

Some groups claim to evaluate written “maps” based on how well they match intended “territories”. And when it is easy for many clearly-neutral outsiders to visit a territory, it can be easy for outsiders to check that territory-matching is actually how this group evaluates maps. But the harder it is for outsiders to see territories, or to read their supposedly matching maps, and the more easily that outside critics can be credibly accused of political bias, the more easily a group could pretend to evaluate maps based on territory matches, but actually evaluate them via coalition politics. For example, anthropologists watching the private lives of the very rich might write descriptions of those lives that pander to academic presumptions about the very rich, since few academics ever see those lives directly, and the few who do can be accused of biased by association.

Some groups use objective criteria for evaluations, but don’t give those criteria enough weight to stop coalition politics from dominating evaluations. For example, economic theory journals can claim that they only publish articles containing proofs without obvious errors. And the ability of readers to seek errors may ensure that this criteria is usually satisfied. But such journals may still reject most submissions that meet this criteria, allowing coalition politics to dominate which articles are accepted. Winning coalitions may be constrained to include only members capable of constructing proofs without obvious errors, but this need not be very constraining to them.

Another approach is to only use objective evaluation criteria, but to use many such criteria and to be unclear about their relative weights. The more such criteria, the greater the chance of finding criteria to reach whatever evaluation one wants. For example, in many legal areas there is wide agreement on the relevant factors, and on which directions each factor points to in a final decision. Nevertheless, given enough relevant factors, courts may usually have enough discretion to favor either side.

For any one group and their declared criteria of evaluation, it can be hard for outsiders to judge just how much leeway that group has left for coalition politics to influence evaluations. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to our own groups, but not to rivalrous groups. For example, pro-science anti-religion folks may presume that peer review in scientific journals is mainly used to enforce good evidence norms, but that religious leaders mainly use their discretion in interpreting scriptures to favor their allies.

If they were honest, each group would either declare objective evaluation criteria that leave little room for coalition politics, or accept that outsiders can reasonably presume that coalition politics probably dominates their evaluations. And everyone should expect that even if their group now seems an exception where other criteria dominate, it will probably not remain so for long. Because these are in fact reasonable assumptions in a world where collation politics is a dirt that regularly and rapidly accumulates in any corner not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

Hey there reader, I really am talking about you and the worlds of writing where you live. Do you presume that your worlds are mostly dominated by politics, where different coalitions vie to support allies and knock rivals? Or do you see the groups you hang with as holding themselves to higher standards? If higher standards, are they standards that outsiders can easily check on? Or do you in practice mostly have to trust a small group of insiders to judge if standards are met? And if you have to trust insiders, how sure can you be their choices aren’t mostly driven by coalition politics?

Years ago I struggled with this issue, and wondered what evaluation criteria a group could adopt to robustly induce their writings to roughly track truth on a wide range of topics, and resist the corrupting pressures of coalition politics to say what key audiences want or expect to hear. I was delighted to find that for a wide range of topics open prediction markets offer such robust criteria. Each trade can be an “edit” of the highly-evaluated “writing” that is the current market odds on each topic. Such edits are rewarded or punished via cash for moving the consensus toward or away from the truth.

I had hoped that many groups would be anxious to avoid the appearance that coalition politics may dirty their evaluations, and thus be eager to adopt new standards that can avoid such an appearance. So I hoped that many groups would want to adopt prediction markets, once they were clearly shown to be feasible and practical. Alas, that seems to not be so.

Today’s winning coalitions seem to prefer to let coalition politics continue to determine who wins in each group. This seems like how police departments would like to appear free from corruption, but not enough to actually make their internal affairs departments report to someone other than the chief of police. We are fond of tarring rival groups with the accusation that coalition politics dominates their evaluations, and we are fond of pretending that we are different. But not enough to visibly block that politics.

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Writers Focus On Topic Or Audience?

Writers must attend both to their topic, and to their audience. They must learn things both about the topics on which they write, and about the people who will evaluate their writings. But to which of these do they attend more? For some kinds of writers, idealists say that they mostly attend to their topics, and for other kinds of writers, cynics say that they mostly attend to their audience. Who is more right?

To help answer this question, I suggest a simple test. When a writer solicits commentary on her drafts, does she mostly seek out people who know about the topics on which she writes, or does she mostly seek out people who are or are like or who can predict the audience she must please? Of course there is often a strong correlation between these features, as the audience one must please often knows a lot about the topic. And sometimes the audience is part of the topic. So attending to the audience can indirectly attend to the topic, and vice versa.

Even so, since knowledge of the topic and representation of the audience are not perfectly correlated, if one sees enough writers solicit enough commentary on drafts, one should be able to make out a difference. And in my limited experience, the writers I’ve known seem to focus much more on audience than on topic. They are eager to get comments from folks who know little about the topic but could be influential in getting their writing accepted (or are like or can predict such evaluators), and pay less attention to folks who know a lot about their topic but have little influence (and aren’t much like influential folks).

But what do the rest of you see? True, even if you confirm my observation, we might explain it by saying it is just much easier to learn by reading about a topic than about an audience – so direct feedback is better for learning about audiences. But first, let’s get this datum straight.

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Fairy Tales Were Cynical

A recent New Yorker article on fairy tales fascinated me (quotes below). Apparently the fairy tales once “told at rural firesides” were for adults, full of sex and violence, and cynical – they did not often affirm common ideals. This stands in sharp contrast to most fiction genres today, especially today’s fairy tales targeted at kids. Why were long ago stories so much more cynical? They remind me of some joke genres, like dead baby jokes, and of the crudeness often found off the record in many close social groups.

Here’s my homo hypocritus explanation. Our forager ancestors evolved intricate capacities to affirm standard ideals when what they said or did might be visible or reported to distant observers, and to coordinate to violate such ideals when they were less visible. Shared private rejection and violation of wider ideals can signal close bonds with associates, and reveal more about ourselves to intimates.

So when stories become more visible, such as by getting published in books, stories had to become more ideal. Similarly, when kids were taught in schools, with a curriculum visible to all, that curriculum had to become more ideal. And as law enforcement has become more visible, it has been held to higher standards.

Today harassment laws make it harder to be very crude and cynical at work, and divorce custody battles punish parents who act this way around their kids. Today, more interactions are governed by officially idealistic norms: teachers around students, doctors & lawyers around clients, etc. What costs do we pay for this panopticon-like suppression of our natural crude/cynical styles? We are probably less able to form very close social groups where we can more clearly see each others’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But what else?

Added 26Aug: Another contributing factor may be that in general our idealism just rises with rising wealth.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Fairy Tales Were Cynical" »

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Life Is Good

At Sunday’s meetup, some folks expressed surprise that I seemed nicer, softer, and less cynical in person, relative to my writings. I do often take “cynical” positions, in the sense of assigning low motives to behavior, and cynics do often have sour attitudes.

So let me take this opportunity to affirm something that usually seems too obvious to be worth mentioning: life is good! Lives based on motives that are not considered especially admirable can be satisfying and enjoyable. For example, I like to compete (such as in board games and conversation), to be admired, to lust, to find fault and criticize, and to make and spend money. I love talking with smart people interested in interesting topics, even if I don’t agree with them. And I love having the time and freedom to think and write about topics that interest me. And, do I really need to say it, I love eating, sleeping, getting clean, riding my bike, watching clouds float past the trees, etc. And I don’t think I’m that unusual. Even if most of us follow low motives most of the time, LIFE IS GOOD!

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Cynicism Is Near And Far

People seem to find it easier to be idealistic about social institutions and practices in which they are not greatly involved. It seems easier for non-soldiers to be idealistic about the military, for those who do are not teachers or students to be idealistic about school, and for those who are not reporters or interviewees to be idealistic about journalism. It also seems easier for the never-married to be idealistic about marriage.

People also, however, tend to be less idealistic about social institutions very distant in time and space. They think that ancient doctors didn’t help health, that ancient police mostly took bribes, that ancient marriages were raw domination, and so on. They also tend to think institutions in distant nations are similarly dysfunctional.

Many folks succumb to nostalgia, but they usually celebrate moderately old institutions and practices; few are nostalgic for an era thousands of years past. Similarly, many folks are cynical about their family, the company they work for, or the city they live in, and presume things must be better in other nearby families, firms, or cities.

In all this I see an interestingly intermediate near-far effect: We seem the least idealistic, or the most cynical, about things the most near and the most far in time, space, and social distance. We seem the most idealistic about things at intermediate distances. What other intermediate near-far effects can we see?

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Hail Survivalists

Two recent articles on survivalists:

  1. “From the outside, Jerry Erwin’s home … is a nondescript house … But tucked away out of sight in his backyard are the signs of his preparations for doomsday, a catastrophic societal collapse that Erwin, 45, now believes is likely within his lifetime. … Erwin and others like him in the United States and elsewhere see political upheaval and natural disasters as clear signs that civilization is doomed.” (more; HT J Hughes)
  2. “Vivos goes all out by promising a survival shelter stocked with power generation, water wells, filtration systems, sewage disposal, a year’s supply of food, security devices and medical equipment. Of course, you’ll need all that if you believe disaster may strike at any moment because of a polar shift, super volcano eruptions, solar flares, nuclear war, and `even the return of Planet X (known as Niburu or Nemesis),’ Vivos cheerfully states. Did we mention that there’s a 2012 countdown clock on the company website?” (more)

Sadly, as with cryonics patients, while survivalists do society a great good, the media mostly snickers at them. This makes sense when you realize: Charity Isn’t About Help. Given a choice between praising acts that show devotion and loyalty, or acts that actually help, humans usually praise loyalty.

On the good: The world faces existential risk, i.e., a risk that the world will die.  Such a death is bad not only for those who live here now, but also for vast future generations who might descend from us now.  Cultures and ethnicities face related risks.  By preparing to save themselves under various disaster scenarios, survivalists also tend to make their culture, ethnicity, and world a bit less likely to die.  An effort for which future generations should be quite grateful.

On snickering:  On average, survivalists tend to display undesirable characteristics. They tend to have extreme and unrealistic opinions, that disaster soon has an unrealistically high probability.  They also show disloyalty and a low opinion of their wider society, by suggesting it is due for a big disaster soon.  They show disloyalty to larger social units, by focusing directly on saving their own friends and family, rather than focusing on saving those larger social units.  And they tend to be cynics, with all that implies.

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Difference Wisdom

Seek serenity to accept what you cannot change, courage to change what you can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Imagine that you were thinking of buying or building a house. Now consider various possible hypothesis you might have about your degree of influence over this resulting house.

At one extreme, you might fatalistically assume you had no influence. For example, you might think your spouse will pick the neighborhood, house, and all later home improvements, and that you’d have zero input. If this assumption were mistaken, you might later regret that you’d invested little effort in thinking about what you wanted, or what was feasible.

At the other extreme, you might assume you had budget and approval for a huge estate and mansion anywhere you wanted.   So you might sketch out elaborate designs – the bowling alley goes here, ballroom to the south, the helipad over there, and so on. If your budget was actually far smaller, however, most of this effort might be wasted.

Yes, it can be good to spend a bit of time considering a wide range of influence levels. Sure, sometimes you might think about what you’d do if you won the lottery, or if you were locked in jail for decades. But surely most of your planning should be done matched to the scale of your actual degree of influence. Not much point in shopping for the best private jet if you can barely afford a car.

The same principle applies to our strongest relations, such as romance and friendship. These matter greatly deal to us, and so we’d very much like to control them. We make lists of what we want in our mates and allies, we rehearse what we will and won’t accept from partners, and we analyze our interactions to assure ourselves we understand what is happening.

But much of this is illusory overconfidence and over-reach; we usually have far less control over and understanding of our relations than we think. Sure we can list features we like and dislike, all else equal. And we might be mostly correct about which way those features influence our attraction. Even so, we mostly just don’t know why we like some and dislike others. Sometimes we don’t even realize who it is we like and dislike.

If we calculate that it would be in our interest to like or dislike someone more, we have only a very limited ability to actually make ourselves do this. Even when we decide we’d be better off breaking it off a relation, we can find that quite hard to actually do so. More likely we’ll break something off and then make up reasons about why that was a good idea.

I’m not saying to never think about your relations; I’m saying such thinking is more useful when you are more realistic about your influence. Of course if others get wind of your realism they may respect you less, or think they can walk all over you. So in that way it might be in your interest to be somewhat deluded about your influence. And you won’t get to be a famous inspirational speaker on relationships by speaking honestly about them.  But be careful to not take your confident image too seriously.

The same principle also applies in futurism. It is tempting to think we can remake the universe to be anything we now collectively want, and so to spend great efforts wondering how exactly we would want the universe to be if we had our druthers. But if we are actually very constrained in our influence, most of this effort will be wasted. Oh it might be a helpful exercise in far-mode thinking, to affirm far values and assert confidence in our abilities.  But it might not do much for the future.

When our ability to influence the future is quite limited, then our first priority must be to make a best guess of what the future will actually be like, if we exert no influence. This best guess should not be a wishful assertion of our far values, it should be a near-real description of how we would actually bet, if the asset at risk in the bet wer something we really cared about strongly. And yes, that description may well be “cynical.”

With such a cynical would-bet best guess, one should then spend most of one’s efforts asking which small variations on this scenario one would most prefer, and what kinds of actions could most usefully and reliably move the future toward these preferred scenarios. (Econ marginal analysis can help here.)  And then one should start doing such things.  Yes this approach seems less noble, fun, and optimistic, and talking this way won’t make you an inspirational futurist, speaking at all the hip conferences. Even so, those small shifts are what would actually most help the future.

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When Myths Meet Tech

A standard story:

In the bad old days, police gave lip service to law, but actually often looked the other way, issued street justice, planted evidence, or lied under oath, all to implement their own sense of who should be punished, to gain payola, or to bow to the necessities of political influence. While this situation continues in much of the world, in our great nation, ta da, heroic legal activists appealed to our better natures, and shamed us into constraining the police, judges, etc. to actually follow the legal principles to which they give lip service. Sure sometimes we find a few bad apples, but now we mostly do just apply the law neutrally.

This heroic myth is now colliding with rapidly falling costs of recording our interactions with police, and with each other. When such clear evidence is usually available, we will have to either actually follow our legal principles, or be obvious about not doing so. Surely we wouldn’t just make it illegal to record interactions with police, right?

In far idealistic mode, many are tempted to accept this standard story, and assume that any laws against recording one’s interactions with police must be a temporary error, surely to be overturned when the good voters become aware of the outrage. We’d never so transparently turn our backs on our core legal principles, right?  Consider:

In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer. Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized. …

A few weeks ago, an Illinois judge rejected a motion to dismiss an eavesdropping charge against Christopher Drew, who recorded his own arrest for selling one-dollar artwork on the streets of Chicago. … In 2001, when Michael Hyde was arrested for criminally violating the state’s electronic surveillance law – aka recording a police encounter – the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction 4-2. ..

The selection of “shooters” targeted for prosecution do, indeed, suggest a pattern of either reprisal or an attempt to intimidate. … Recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. …

A recent arrest in Maryland is both typical and disturbing. On March 5, 24-year-old Anthony John Graber III’s motorcycle was pulled over for speeding. He is currently facing criminal charges for a video he recorded on his helmet-mounted camera during the traffic stop. …

Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop. Happily, even as the practice of arresting “shooters” expands, there are signs of effective backlash. At least one Pennsylvania jurisdiction has reaffirmed the right to video in public places. As part of a settlement with ACLU attorneys who represented an arrested “shooter,” the police in Spring City and East Vincent Township adopted a written policy allowing the recording of on-duty policemen.

And this is all about the official rules. I’m pretty sure that unofficially, police have ways of punishing you for trying to record them, even if you are legally allowed to do so. Consider also:

An obvious enabler of police corruption is the fact that internal affairs units, tasked with exposing corruption, usually report to the same police chief that would be embarrassed by such exposure, and who may also be corrupt. An obvious solution is to make internal affairs more independent, e.g., reporting directly to a city council or even a governor.

This isn’t some temporary lack of adaptation to a new tech; the obvious solution has been possible, and ignored, for a long long time.  Now ask yourself honestly, in near mode, what you think will usually happen in ten years to someone who tries to visibly record their interaction with police.

Added 16June: New from the Post:

The decades-old wiretap law has suddenly become a fresh battleground for civil libertarians and bloggers who consider Graber’s prosecution and a series of similar arrests a case of government overreach.

Count me as one of those bloggers. 🙂

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Wanted: Cynic Textbooks

People have a variety of motives for their actions. Actions vary in how verbal or symbolic they are, and motives vary in how explicit, conscious, and proximate to action they are. Motives also vary in being “high” vs. “low” on a standard ranking of the nobility of motives.

“Cynics” vs. “idealistic” beliefs differ in how high are the motives they assign to acts. (Cynical moods are another matter.)  We can probably agree that explicit, conscious, and proximate motives tend to be higher, as do motives behind verbal and symbolic acts. We also tend to be more idealistic about “us”, and more cynical about “them.” Even so, there is room to disagree on if cynical or idealistic beliefs are be more accurate descriptions of reality.

It seems to me that idealistic views dominate official views, especially views visible to many and expressed by the powerful. (After all, power is far, and far is ideal.) Idealism dominantes most official speeches, especially for funerals, weddings, award acceptance, politicial stump, and movie hero speeches. Idealism also dominates most ads, product brochures, vision statements, legal rulings, textbooks, and song lyrics. Cynical views are found in private conversations, e.g. at a bar or water cooler, in porn, from stand-up comedians, in movie villan speeches, and in political rants about certain sorts of “them.”

Formal education relentlessly pushes idealistic views on kids, and censorship “protects” them from hearing cynical views. Whatever cynicism kids learn “on the street”, they know teachers will not want to hear it in class. Cynical views may be expressed in hushed tones to co-workers, but modern workers know to avoid such views in official memos, or even in private emails, for fear of hurting their firm if exposed in a lawsuit.

Alas, this seems nothing remotely like a fair rhetorical fight. To give kids a fair chance to believe whatever the evidence best supports, they should have access to textbook-like presentations of cynical views that are as clear and accessible as for idealistic views. But few such texts exist, and we’d probably censor any that were created.  I’m interested in helping to create such texts, but the ideologues most willing to fund the creation of contrarain texts prefer to frame them in idealistic terms; cynical framing seems the kiss of death.

When people defend our habit of emphasizing idealistic views, they almost never say that such views are just plain more accurate. They talk instead about how it is good for the world if folks are taught idealism, or that it is empowering, motivating, or impressive to believe in idealism. Or maybe that if we repeat idealism enough then someday it may really become true.  All of which seems to me to basically admit: idealism, as usually spoken, is mostly a lie.

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