Last week, we talked about “chart crimes“. Often these are charts that poorly constructed because the authors have been fooled by correlations or invalid comparisons. These are naive but honest. Then there are charts that use sleight of hand to nudge a conclusion. This author has an axe to grind.
This week, we will discover the literary version of chart crimes. It’s what Cedric Chin simply calls “sounding insightful”. It’s an approach honed in the internet tournament for attention. Since desire is the only barrier to publishing online we are witnessing “an arms race in writing. The best online writers are able to make something sound insightful — regardless of whether it’s true, or whether it’s useful.”
This isn’t some evil conspiracy. ‘Writers optimizing to produce insight porn to grab attention’ sounds nefarious, but it’s really more like ‘writers responding to the incentives of the social internet’ — a simple side effect of the attention economy.
My own feeling is that the overlap between universally “good writing” and “optimizing for attention” is much higher than “good writing” and “being right about what you are writing about”. I’m sure there’s some mix of practice, talent, and writing ed that can make you a good writer. But I’m not sure how correlated any of that is with having accurate or well-reasoned thoughts.
A bad writer with bad takes is harmless. Nobody finds them. A bad writer with good takes needs an agent. A good writer with bad takes is hard to detect for 2 reasons:
1. Part of good writing is being effectively persuasive. A good writer has you in a spell.
2. There are elements common to all good writing so you cannot distinguish good takes from bad takes based on style.
Ced refers to some of these common elements as “tricks”.
Here’s 2 familiar ones:
- Use a story.
I started this piece with a story. Preferably from a historical period that the reader isn’t familiar with.
- Repackage obvious truths and sprinkle them over the course of an essay
Clichés can thus be repackaged to sound insightful. This is a useful trick because a) clichés are often truths the reader already agrees with, and b) whatever sounds insightful will keep the reader going.
Usefulness Separates Infotainment From Scholarship
Ced warns that what sounds insightful isn’t always true or useful. Some excerpts:
- [Venkat] Rao’s piece is not ok if your goal is to read for career reasons. But it’s ok if your goal is to read for entertainment. It’s ok because Rao’s goal is to attract eyeballs, not create better business leaders. And his writing is so good most people will forgive him for it.
- As a writer, I admire what he’s done. But as a business person, nearly everything that [Dave] Perell says in the piece about business is subtly wrong — enough to make me treat his essay as entertainment, not education.
- Writers are often seen as smarter because good writers today are trained to optimize for sounding insightful. This bleeds over into reader perception. I think that whether a writer sounds smart or a piece sounds sophisticated shouldn’t affect you if your goal is to put things you read to practice. The questions remain the same: “Is this person believable? How likely is this going to be useful? And what’s the cheapest way to find out?”
Clear Thoughts Do Not Equal Correct Thoughts
Ced concludes his post:
A year ago I wrote Writing Doesn’t Make You a Genius. I noticed that people tend to assume good writers are smarter than they actually are. I argued that this was mistaken — that writers sound smarter on paper because the act of writing forces them to clarify their ideas.
But now I have another reason. Writers are often seen as smarter because good writers today are trained to optimize for sounding insightful. This bleeds over into reader perception.
My Own Reconciliation
My feeling is the usefulness of writing comes in 2 forms:
- Form 1: The writing helps you make better decisions or predictions.
- Form 2: The writing is useful for entertaining or provoking you. If a writer is wrong in interesting ways their work is still useful.
The most common failure is to incorrectly label a Form 2 piece as Form 1. If all you ever read is Malcolm Gladwell or self-help you might never know the difference.
For a fuller discussion, please check out Ced’s Beware What Sounds Insightful (Link)
The Money Angle
I’m familiar with the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency through a conventional lens. As a deliberate bargain between the US and the rest of the world.
It goes something like this:
The US enjoys a stable currency effectively lowering her cost of capital. In exchange, US Naval might enforces order on maritime trade routes. The safety of shipping lanes is a global good lifting all economies through the efficiencies of comparative advantage and arbitrage. This global good would be difficult to coordinate without a single cop like the US so the world accepts this bargain as reasonably fair even if it might nitpick aspects of it.
I recently read a different perspective on this global arrangement. In this alternative view, the status quo was not an explicit or even implicit deal between the US and the rest of the world but an emergent phenomenon. The distinction is important because the force that maintains it is not international diplomacy shaped by national interests. Instead, it is simply the position at which the equilibrium is at rest according to economic gravity. The invisible hand working bottom-up not authority working top-down.
Yakov Feygin and Dominik Leusder explain:
The dollar system evolved not as a tool of imperial statecraft, but as the project of a transnational elite that has effectively usurped control of an international public good.
Frameworks for understanding the persistence of the dollar system tend to vary from from reductionist to outdated, often examining international politics with discrete nation states as the main unit of analysis. In this view, the dollar is a product of hegemonic US interests, wielded as a tool of statecraft. But global financialization has upended this framework: elite interests are not aggregated domestically but internationally, and are transmitted via the balance-of-payments mechanism and the financial system…Herman Mark Schwartz, one of the foremost experts on the dollar and American hegemony, offers a better way to think about the dollar—namely, as the state money of a quasi-imperial global system, in which the different economic regions are tied together by a shared reserve currency. This ‘imperial currency’ is more of a by-product, and less of an enabler of (or even an enabling constraint on) American expansionism and military adventurism, both of which preceded the reserve currency status of the dollar.
In this version of world order, the status quo is not actually to any nation’s benefit but to a political and economic class whose interests transcend sovereign borders.
This leads to a counterintuitive conclusion:
To the extent that the world has prospered since Bretton Woods, it is in spite of, not due to, the USD being the reserve currency.
The full case is laid out in The Class Politics Of The Dollar System. I took some notes and captured excerpts. (Link)
- Psychedelics and Changing Your Mind
Earlier I mentioned that being wrong in interesting ways can be useful. Dissociating from reality can be useful. Good writing can do that for you. So can psychedelics. I’m not advocating that, they are illegal, and the cost/benefit is up to an adult to decide. But this letter is inspired by the Moontower so I’ll continue.
After listening to Michael Pollan talk about his latest book How To Change Your Mind, I bought it as a birthday gift for someone. My 3 word description is “how shrooms work”. I want to read it myself but in the meantime Blas Moros takeaways held me over. Some that stood out to me:
- It helps you distance yourself from your ego and gain a new perspective on life.
- After these experiences, many people lose their ego and sense of self and believe that consciousness is a property of the universe and doesn’t rise out of our consciousness or minds.
- Allows your brain to disassociate and make connections that it doesn’t do normally.
- Uncertainty causes fear in humans and therefore the brain has developed protective pattern matching / recognizing skills. From this comes the stories we tell ourselves, whether right or wrong, to try to help us deal with the world around us. However, this takes a toll and when we become too rigid- – when there is not enough entropy in the brain – it leads to linear and boxed in thinking, close-mindedness.
- Focus on things truly important to them, lessen the power of their ego over them, and more. Don’t fret about the details of life but focus on relationships, walks, connectedness, giving joy to others; etc.
- Speaking of Blas, I’m a big fan of his Rabbit Hole letter. He takes outstanding notes on what he’s reading or consuming. He discusses his monthly self-hacking experiments. Like Ced Chin, he’s always trying to turn his knowledge into action or tests. Blas’ new project called the Latticework is officially out of beta. If Rabbit Hole is notes, Latticework is synthesis. I recommend starting with the 3 Buckets of Worldy Wisdom (Link)