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#36: Everything is awful and nobody knows what they’re doing

#36: Everything is awful and nobody knows what they’re doing

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday email, the only weekly newsletter that freely admits that you might as well put your head in a toilet because it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to make you less of an awful person. This week, in honor of my last book, is a special “everything is f’d” edition of the MFM email. We’re talking about how, 1) learning about biases can make people more biased, 2) teacher evaluations can make teachers worse, and 3) how everything on the internet is probably a lie. 

Let’s get into it!

1. Everything is f*cked, bias recognition edition – Long-time readers know that I was writing about unconscious biases even before it was cool. But rather than focusing on social issues, I wrote about them in terms of personal development. Because, let’s be honest, most of our problems in life stem from our inability to think and act rationally for extended periods of time. A lot of my work over the years has been dedicated to informing people about the imperfections of our minds in hopes that we can adapt and check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. 

Ah, but if only it were so simple! A recent study ran some experiments that produced some disheartening findings. The first is that people tend to assume others are far more biased than themselves. This is unsurprising. In fact, anyone who is familiar with biases knows that we tend to assume that other people suck and we’re awesome and that’s that. 

But that’s where the second finding comes in. It turns out that the more aware people are of human biases, the more they assume others are more biased than themselves. 

Ah, fuck… 

Put another way, upon learning that we have all sorts of biases and irrational tendencies, instead of turning inward and considering, “How am I being irrational right now?” most people instead say, “Hah! Those assholes are even more irrational than I thought!” 

Does this mean we’re hopeless? Not really. There was a third finding in the paper, which found that when people were asked to consider both others’ perspectives and their own, people who were more informed about biases became less biased in their judgments. 

Translation: self-awareness, as usual, is kind of behind, well, everything. 

2. Everything is f*cked, college professor edition – In my book, Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, I had two full chapters about the dangers of setting up systems designed to give people everything they want. These sorts of systems always sound great on the surface — after all, we should try to make everybody happy, right? But as I discussed in the book, we a) often want terrible things for ourselves without knowing it, and b) we need a certain amount of challenge and struggle in life to remain mentally and emotionally healthy. 

In the book, I talked about this in terms of consumer and entertainment culture and how having everything we desire “on demand” gently lulls us into a passive sense of entitlement and fragility. Well, I stumbled across another juicy example of how “give the people what they want!” can backfire: teacher evaluations in universities. 

For those who don’t know or don’t remember, at the end of each semester, students fill out a survey evaluating their teachers. These evaluations are then used by the administration to make decisions about the courses they offer and the professors they hire (or re-hire). 

Well, this isn’t going to surprise you, but it turns out that students’ ratings of their professors are driven the most by how good of a grade they received. And the professors who give the highest grades to the most kids, generally receive the best evaluations. 

Shocking, I know… 

What’s worse, these evaluations appear to be having some effect. For the past 30 years, college courses have steadily gotten easier (as measured in terms of weekly hours spent studying) and awarded higher grades. In fact, college students spend 20% as much time studying today compared to 1960, yet they are awarded four times as many A’s (the highest grade in the US system). That’s staggering. 

It’s another Backward’s Law in action — the desire to give college students a better experience inadvertently gives them a worse experience. And the desire to provide a great education for everyone slowly deteriorates into a great education for no one. 

3. Everything is f*cked, internet quotes edition – Speaking of university, here’s a confession: Wikipedia pretty much got me through school. I know I’m not supposed to say that. Every single one of my professors and high school teachers told me not to trust whatever information I found there. But I had an extremely busy schedule back then of keg parties and awkward conversations with girls — I didn’t have time to actually “research” things.

These days, I actually do research. That’s because if I ever say anything wrong on the internet, approximately 1,082 people will call me a fascist. 

But recently, the scope of bullshit online hit home for me when I stumbled across a famous quote from Aristotle: 

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“Great quote!” I thought. “I wonder which of his works it came from.” So, I Googled around for a while to find out. 

No luck.

Then I got on Amazon and realized you can buy EVERYTHING ARISTOTLE EVER WROTE in a 2,800 page Kindle ebook for like 20 cents. So I bought it (support your authors people!) and started searching through the text to see where the quote appeared.

Nothing. 

Then I figured, “Well, maybe I have a different translation.” So I started searching for single specific words and variations of phrases within the sentence. Tons of results. No quote.

Finally, after 30 minutes of searching, I finally found the section — the ONLY section — that I can imagine being the source. Are you ready? Prepare yourself. This is the actual quote:

“For an educated man should be able to form a judgment of the goodness or badness of the method used in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue as having this ability.”

Okay, not going to see that printed on a poster any time soon…

In fact, the quote occurs in a section where Aristotle speculates what animals are. He’s not even talking about humans or psychology. He’s saying that we need to have an open mind about whatever the hell animals are, because, I guess 2,300 years ago, animals were pretty confusing. 

“Hey, Bambi might not actually be a deer, keep that in mind, OK? …Oh, and fuck your motivational poster.”

From there, I became curious. If this quote was horribly butchered, how many other quotes were, too?

When you visit GoodReads’ quotes page for Aristotle, here are the top results:

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
“Hope is a waking dream.”
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
“Happiness depends upon ourselves.”


These all sound nice, right? Well, guess what? I could not find a single one of the above quotes in Aristotle’s Complete Works or in a modern translation of his Nicomachean Ethics (his most famous work).

Why?

Well, one, because the quotes above are a bunch of hokey cliches. It’s the type of shit your aunt says to you after you get dumped, not the thoughts of arguably the most significant mind in the ancient world. 

Second, because, if you didn’t notice, Aristotle is absolutely impossible to read.

Take a look at this, for example. Aristotle is attributed with coming up with that old axiom: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Well, after wasting an entire afternoon looking for that one, here it is, from his classic hit, Metaphysics

“In the case of all things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts, there is a cause; for even in bodies contact is the cause of unity in some cases, and in others viscosity or some other such quality.”



I guess I’m just here to tell you pretty much any pithy and smart-sounding quote from an ancient philosopher is likely bullshit. I always knew that a lot of these things were not properly attributed or in rare cases, were completely made up. But there’s literally hundreds of Aristotle quotes floating around out there, and I’m pretty sure he actually said almost none of them.

So remember, kids: don’t use Wikipedia for your term papers. Don’t quote people on the internet (except for me, you can quote me constantly). And like everything else online, assume it’s a lie. Instead, when in doubt, sit down and sludge your way through 2,800 pages of Greek philosophy about what an animal is and how two bodies of motion affect one another and are superseded by one larger form of motion. It’ll put some goddamn hair on your chest.

See you next week,

Mark