July 13, 2020
One of my favorite Aretha songs is “Think.” And that’s what the following excerpt is about. Our world is complicated. We need to think when we listen and read - how do I know this is true? What bias is inherent in this information? What do other sources say?
We crave certainty. But there is little of that. The sooner we get comfortable with uncertainty and thinking our way through it, the better informed and happier we will be. Although I am uncertain of that. 🤪
A friendly reminder about epistemic uncertainty- I’ve now been doing this weekly newsletter for about nine months and, in many ways, it’s been an enlightening experience. On a personal level, it has forced me to think more critically about various topics each week. It keeps my writing knife sharpened. But it also exposes me to you all, my readers, far more frequently, and more intimately (through email responses) than I’m used to.
Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I would like to take a moment and establish some guiding principles for this newsletter going forward, and I’ll explain why below:
Just because I write about something does not mean that I necessarily 100% believe it or even think you should believe it. That may freak you out. You may say, "Well, what the hell am I subscribed to this thing for?" But the goal of this newsletter isn’t to believe—it’s to think. It’s to become comfortable with thinking without believing. My guiding principle when determining what to write about here is what’s interesting, not necessarily what is Capital-T "True." There is a famous (fake) Aristotle quote that says, "The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it." The goal here is to be an educated mind.
The scientific studies presented in this newsletter are evidence, not fact. Just because there is evidence for something doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true. Just because that evidence is sometimes flawed or limited does not necessarily mean that it’s not true. Evidence of something simply means that that something is more likely, and occasionally, far more likely.
Sometimes seemingly contradictory things can both be correct. Police brutality can be declining and it can still be a major problem in the United States. Education can be getting worse despite the fact that young people of each generation continue to end up more educated. Smartphones can be both good and bad for our mental health. Political causes can be good even if the people who lead them are corrupt morons. If there is any enemy of this newsletter, it is "all or nothing" thinking — even to the point where I would say you shouldn’t always discount "all or nothing" thinking.
These three principles are the big lessons of doing this newsletter for almost a year now. I also believe it's the nuance of the above items that the internet does terribly. People regularly get pushed into defending positions they don’t hold that strongly only because other people mistake their public ideation for some form of zealotry. Evidence gets misrepresented as fact and theories get misrepresented as evidence. People seem unable to sit with two opposing ideas long enough to see how they could fit together.
I bring all this up simply because I find that I get dozens of frustrated or even angry replies each week that slip into the three categories above. People assume that because I share some information,I must be a proponent of that political cause or ideology. People assume that because a study I share is limited, it must be false and I must be wrong. And sometimes people freak out and say, "Well, three weeks ago you said X, this week you’re saying the opposite of X — which is it, Mark, huh?"
To which I reply, "Both?" And then their heads explode and I lose another subscriber.
Going forward, I may occasionally remind you of these principles, particularly when there are some sensitive topics in that week’s newsletter. Partly for my sake, so I don’t get dozens and dozens of angry replies accusing me of some sort "-ism."
But also partly for your sake because we all so easily forget, myself included. Because this is the mindfuck of our Monday, where we try to consider contradictory and paradoxical ideas without necessarily having to settle on them being true or untrue. Because the point isn’t to always be right or wrong… it’s to gain an understanding. Because the world is fucking weird and confusing and the moment we stop challenging our own thinking is the moment everything gets worse.