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foxwizard ☾

Intellectually Honest (like a fox)

How to dance amidst bullshit with grace.

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It seems an offhand remark I made in my last museletter has caused a very minor stir. This amuses me—whilst also activating my long held ‘fear of being misunderstood’—and so I thought I might take this opportunity to elucidate. Indulge me as we explore what intellectual honesty means in the distraction economy.

I mentioned the following, in the context of deciding to resurrect the mythic stage persona of Dr. Fox, Archwizard of Ambiguity (most fantastic); award-winning global keynote speaker, bestselling author and leadership ‘futurist’. I did this so that I can shine a little brighter in the distraction economy—whilst preserving more room for intellectual honesty with you here.

I had been trying to do both at once, but (and here’s the line that caused the minor stir)—

“Genuinely, it’s been a challenge to be both intellectually honest and commercially effective in this distraction economy.”

Some may think this means I am advocating for dishonesty—I’m not. What I mean is: it’s challenging to be intellectually honest whilst also being commercially effective in the distraction economy. A worthy challenge, mind. Yet challenging, nonetheless. Far easy to just embrace a disregard for truth.

Take statistics, for example. Or ‘stats’, as they are affectionately known. Whenever someone shares a statistic—in a presentation, a paper, or whatever—the questions we ought ask include:

  • From whence does this data come? Is the source credible? Has it been published in a peer-reviewed journal? And is this journal respected? If it’s not in a peer-reviewed journal, is the methodology comprehensively shared? Is it verifiable?
  • How large was the sample size? And was it representative across relevant categories?
  • How was the study designed? How was the data collected? Was it self-reported assessments subject to cognitive bias? What methods were used, and were these methods appropriate for the data and the research question? How is significance reported? p-values? Z-scores and T-scores? A chi-square test? Analysis of variance? F-tests? Effect sizes? What are the margins for error—and are these reported? What about confidence intervals?
  • Who funded the research? Quality research is expensive—did the researchers have incentive to make the data skew a particular way?
  • Were variables controlled? Or is the study subject to confounding factors?
  • Has the study been replicated? And are the results consistent with other research? (There is a replication crisis rendering many studies impossible to reproduce)
  • Are the interpretations and conclusions drawn from the results justified? (Remember, correlation does not imply causation.)
  • Also: why this study? Are there alternative theses? Or even: explanations that render any conclusion void? We ought beware the person of one study.

It’s my personal policy to avoid using statistics; I just don’t have the expertise to reliably represent them.* And even if I did, they would be so wrapped up in caveats that they would lose much of their potency and impact. This is an aspect of intellectual honesty—something that encompasses epistemological humility, and a duty of care about how information and ideas can be (mis-)used.

* My doctoral thesis did contain some statistical analysis—but that was decades ago now; I’ve forgotten most of what is important (and I’m sure the field has developed besides).

A principle of any complexity practitioner is to first do no harm. In environmental and biological sciences we call this the precautionary principle. It thus behooves me to do what I can to ensure that whatever thoughts I contribute into the mix do not cause unnecessary harm. This is why I often speak more to sensibilities than statistics, favouring subversive questions over bold advice.

Because if you look at how most scientific claims are actually presented at academic events, a good scientist or researcher would spend some time ensuring there is a shared understanding of terms (this can be expedited via shared jargon), followed by a detailed explanation of the methodological approach and limitations, followed by a discussion of where evidence does (or does not) support the stated hypothesis.

For those of us in the field, this can be quite fascinating. But outside of academia, such conversations can come across as dense, dry and unexciting—and this is not a strategy for attracting attention.

In the distraction economy, it’s the marketers who win. And the relationship many marketers have with honesty is creative at best.

And that’s okay! And sometimes even admirable. But before I get carried away, I ought make a distinction between honesty, dishonesty and bullshit.

Honesty

It doesn’t always make sense to be honest—at least, not immediately, nor directly. It’s not always kind or helpful to be.

But on the whole: honesty is a good policy. Especially when deployed with tact (sans brutality).

There are many well-meaning folk sharing what they honestly believe to be true—social media encourages this. But many have not had the opportunity to cultivate contemplative practices and an ability to critically reflect. So, whilst what they share might be done with honest intent—it is not necessarily an intellectually honest intent. It’s something more basic (and pure? untainted by thought)—and that’s lovely and nice.

But I have come to notice—in my reluctant adventures in LinkedIn land—that there are many who harbour a distrust of academics, scientific papers, and anything that comes across as overly clinical, rational or wordy. Especially if it offers a different perspective to their ‘truth’.

This is understandable: in a world saturated with information coupled with the decline in institutional authority (and the death of expertise), we have been groomed to stick to the shallows. Because: if we can’t trust the cacophony of new information we are subject to each and every day, what can we trust?

For many, the answer is to trust in our feelings.

Our feelings are a beacon for insight. Yet they can lead us astray, and are very easy to take advantage of.* It requires a level of self-awareness to feel our feelings whilst also not getting so swept up in them that we lose our grasp of reality yet also not so detached that we disregard our feelings altogether. To grip tightly with an open palm. To stay in flow with it—for to hold one’s breath is to lose it. The maturing relationship we develop in mindfully feeling our feelings—and translating this awareness into insight—is perhaps some of the most important work we can do.

* Just as our supposed intellect and thoughts can also lead us astray. The first, second and fourth hermetic principles apply here. As in all things.

Yet this reliance on feelings makes the honest-yet-not-necessarily-intellectual cohort much more susceptible to exploitation by bullshitters and the dishonest. It also has many of them adopting the methods of the bullshitters and the dishonest, too. Thus we see a promulgation of overreach—metaphysically, epistemologically—along with a litany of cognitive fallacies.*

* All of this fuelled and rewarded by arenas wherein our attention is monetised for their gain. Also, of course: it’s fallacies, all the way down.

In other words, people extrapolate what feels true to them to equate to: this *is* true; for everyone.

If we meet each other in good faith—especially in real life—much of this can be mitigated. Have people feel seen, respected and at ease, and it is likely we can arrive to a deeper shared understanding, and a richer, more complex and wholesome and messy kind of ‘truth’.* (This is why I remain so keen on events—especially events done well, with a tending to the mythic).

* Or: ‘pretty much’ true—knowing there is no absolute truth.

Dishonesty

There are those amongst us who are construct aware. In this: they know how narrative and belief shape perspective and opinion, and how all roles and titles are theatrical. They also know how dark patterns influence behaviour. These dark wizards have immense power—but I would like to believe that such folks are very rare. And that there aren’t that many intellectually dishonest folks. Most people mean well.

But we can’t be too naïve. We live in an age where disinformation is rising, which is causing direct harm to social cohesion, scientific literacy, electoral integrity and consensus reality. I remember hearing from Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa of The Disinformation Project earlier this year speak of some very maleficent ‘Lawful Evil’ aspects influencing society today. It is scary because we are so susceptible—especially because we are so mired in bullshit.

Bullshit

Bah: I don’t like the word. Unless it’s “bullshit artistry” <— this is a concept I can get behind. If we’re going to bullshit, at least lets make it artful, eh?

But regular, non-artful bullshit is a blight.

I also dislike how the word ‘bullshit’ is used in an Australian context. “I’m gonna call bullshit on that” is a rather blunt masculine way of approaching a difference in perspective; it lacks curiosity, empathy and elegance. I’ve seen it happen in panel discussions; the possibilities for emergence and a mutual growth in understanding collapse. It instead becomes a ‘debate’.

Despite my distaste for the word: bullshit is technical philosophical term, originating from an essay in 1986 by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt (who passed away ~two weeks ago) titled ‘On Bullshit’.

The bullshitter differs from both liars and people presenting the truth with their disregard of the truth. [...] A person who communicates bullshit is not interested in whether what they say is true or false, only in its suitability for their purpose. (source)

Hence why statistics are so often wielded by those who have no regard for their validity. Stats are cherry-picked simply to suit a purpose. And there are plenty of statistics to be found, if you aren’t discerning and do not care for a larger kind of honesty.

Frankfurt believed bullshit to be a greater enemy of the truth than lies are—and this was nearly two decades before Facebook hit the scene and social media began to become the beast it is today.* Now, with AI, we have even more compelling deep fakes, too. Yay.

* Though, to be fair, this was in a time of well established big media players (like Rupert Murdoch’s media empire).

We also have, as Professor John Vervaeke (of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis) puts it, ‘a tsunami of bullshit in a famine of wisdom’. The distraction economy rewards salience much more so than relevance.

In other words: it is much more commercially effective to promulgate that which garners attention than it is to spend time in more vital yet more complex matters. Besides: we intuitively gravitate to that which is ontologically-affirming. Face-validity is enough. (Unless you are striving to be intellectually honest).

This is akin to ‘the delusion of progress’ I write about in How to Lead a Quest—the discrete, proximal, familiar and readily quantifiable will outcompete the vague, emergent, ambiguous, nebulous, complex, unfamiliar and difficult to measure.

Thus to be an influencer you need to promise “10x boosts to productivity” and things like “how I made $1 million dollars in 2 months working less than 4 hours a week”. Lots of different numbers.

We love fast, measurable things that fit into our existing worldview. And so we now have 52%—or wait 86%?—no: 54% of children now want to become influencers.

(I trust the subscribers of my museletter will know I share the above as a jape, given what I’ve just said about my relationship to statistics.)

Influencer is now an aspirational archetype. We also now have people who can tell you with an earnest and straight face that it is ‘better to be a better marketer of what you do than a doer of what you do’. (And it’s true, from a purely commercial perspective). And a lot of this is in the form of “self-marketing”. This isn’t folks getting enthusiastic about the emergence of shared ideas that grow our collective knowledge—it’s folks getting excited about garnering more attention, money, status and power for themselves.* Ideas are just a utility for this purpose.

* It’s like we are overindexed in singer-songwriter soloists singing over each other, when what we need is more jazz.

And it works—if commercial effectiveness is your primary goal. It is easier to have a disregard for the truth than it is to be intellectually honest, if commercial effectiveness is your only goal.* The effort-to-reward ratio is much better. Besides: the optionality accrued via riches and fame can be later transmuted into virtue via philanthropy.

* I am empathetic to folks who have a young family, mortages and debts to pay. This isn’t any individual’s “fault”—these are the symptoms of a system that is way out of balance, and increasingly detached from what is wholesome and regenerative. You gotta do whatcha gotta do. OR DO YOU? (You probably do).

Intellectual honesty can be confusing and confounding. We want confident, clear, crisp, concise calls to action. If you can’t do this it makes you—the supposed intellectual—seem doubtful and uncertain. As I am sure my own writing is here now. Because: it is.

So; what to do?

Be crazy, like a fox

Madness subverts reason.

To say that someone is crazy like a fox is to imply that they are engaged in an activity that is seemingly foolish or insane—but actually quite shrewd, cunning or clever. There’s a fox-like way we can relate to this whole pantomime. A metamodern-ish infinite game (~b) and trickster-like disposition we can adopt.

Some of the moves we infinite players make are non-linear, and seemingly nonsensical. And, fatiguing as it is to maintain the charade, I suspect that I need to redouble my efforts to woo the oligarchs in Enterprise Land towards that which is more conducive to mutual flourishing. This means: some veiling is required.

Hence the masquerade.

The notion of veiling is something James P. Carse mentions 46 times in Finite and Infinite Games.

To account for the large gap between the actual freedom of finite players to step off the field of play at any time and the experienced necessity to stay at the struggle, we can say that as finite players we somehow veil this freedom from ourselves.

Some self-veiling is present in all finite games. Players must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play, else all competitive effort will desert them.

From the outset of finite play each part or position must be taken up with a certain seriousness; players must see themselves as teacher, as light-heavyweight, as mother. In the proper exercise of such roles we positively believe we are the persons those roles portray. Even more: we make those roles believable to others. It is in the nature of acting, Shaw said, that we are not to see this woman as Ophelia, but Ophelia as this woman.

There’s some solace to this. To me, at least—though at this point I begin to wonder: who am I writing this musing for? I believe it is to myself, and to the phantoms I fear may judge me for what this character may need to do in the coming months and years: marketing.

I subtitled this piece: “—how to dance amidst bullshit with grace”. I have been in a long patch of denial about the power of bullshit. Since writing How to Lead a Quest, I thought it obvious that folks would be inclined to orientate towards relevance, once realised. Yet the glamouriethe compelling illusions of seeming—are so strong in this world, now. And we are so blindly attuned to them.

We have also become, as Daniel Schmachtenberger calls it, ‘Moloch apologists’. We defend our delusions of progress, keeping the god of coordination failure happy. To what end, though?

It’s not enough for me to quietly muse upon all of this from the safety of my wizard tower, far removed from the power laws of network effects, untainted by the arena. I must, once again, don the costume and adopt the forms and antics of those enthralled by the pantomime—playing along so that I can sneak deeper, working with fellow infinite players on the inside to weave our magics to greater effect.

Stańczyk, by Jan Matejko.

Part of this magic is in the awakening of those who have forgotten their infinite nature. Those who have forgotten that, they too, have chosen the role they are playing—and in so doing, chosen to forget. There’s a renewed glint you can attain through this remembering—even if you realise that the chosen roles remain the most apt for your context.

So it is with all roles. Only freely can one step into the role of mother. Persons who assume this role, however, must suspend their freedom with a proper seriousness in order to act as the role requires. A mother's words, actions, and feelings belong to the role and not to the person-although some persons may veil themselves so assiduously that they make their performance believable even to themselves, overlooking any distinction between a mother's feelings and their own. The issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask.

As I talk of in The Ritual of Becomingand as the faë character Bast advises in The Name of the Wind:—

“We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.”

There’s a sincere-irony that is required of us if we are to dance amidst the bullshit (that is: the disregard for truth) with grace. We mustn’t get so swept up in our roles that we become too serious.

It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

Hoho: look at me, sermoning from Finite and Infinite Games once more. It’s been a while.

All of this has me recall some wise words from Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I’ve updated the syntax to be more congruent with today’s context.

“Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth that they are in. They must reflect what is projected upon them. And they must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples them from belief in their own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits them to move within themselves. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a person.”

And so, with a strong sense of the sardonic, this here foxwizard finds themselves limbering up to return to the arena once more. Intellectually honest, like a fox.


<record scratch sound> // OR MAYBE NOT.

I’m not sure how much I believe of what I have just written here. As you can tell, I am in the midst of my own figuring. And this is the space that, as a complexity practitoner, I most enjoy.

Nothing is fixed; all is in flux. “Only that which can change can continue”, as James P. Carse asserts. And so, I shall continue to oscillate. It’s all part of the dance.

Where to now?

Thanks for being here · I’m foxwizard (aka Dr Fox)

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