Great quote

Upton Sinclair once said this:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

I learned long ago that if you are wondering whether some activity is a good thing, don’t bother asking someone who makes a living at it. Whoever it is—a professional musician, a paid clergyman, the head of a parachurch ministry, a schoolteacher, a university professor, a real estate agent, a lawyer, a career legislator, a homeschooling conference speaker, a homeschool curriculum creator, an intellectual property creator—will give you all the pros and none of the cons. And, really, it’s unrealistic to expect them to take a detached look at the situation.


2 thoughts on “Great quote

  1. That is so true, Rick. I was going to say more, but probably shouldn’t because I’ll be saying more than I ought to say on a public forum. But I’m not opinionated or anything.:-)

  2. It’s unrealistic to expect people to take a detached look at pretty much anything. In fact, I wonder the issue of detachment isn’t sometimes less of a factor when a salary is the motive, i.e., the necessity of doing a job to pay the mortgage and buy food. Many people have jobs they don’t believe in and don’t like, and changing careers can be difficult so a lot of people in that situation feel like they have no choice. Even so, if you ask them you can expect to hear a positive case for it. (At least in a professional setting. A friend asking about that job later that evening may get a very different story.)

    And I disagree that there’s no point in asking someone who makes a living at an activity if you are wondering whether that activity is a good thing. You make your living by farming (not salary, but it’s how you put food on the table!) and by selling books about (among other things) an agrarian lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean that someone who wants to know if farming and an agrarian lifestyle are good things shouldn’t talk to you. Just the opposite! But if you are wondering whether some activity is a good thing then there’s no point in only asking people who make their living from that activity.

    I teach Computer Science, and if someone wants to know whether studying Computer Science might be a good choice for them I’d like to think that I’d be a good person to talk to. I’ll give them pros and cons about it, of course, but hopefully they’ll talk to a lot of other people about a lot of other choices before they decide. (Most in fact seem to choose a major in a largely haphazard way. That’s part of how so many people get into careers they don’t like or believe in.)

    The bigger problem with not being able to take a detached look at something is when someone has made a commitment to some activity (or product, etc.) and their salary doesn’t depend on it. Because then, unlike the difficulty of changing jobs after you’ve got kids and a mortgage and so on, if they continue with that activity or continue using that product it’s entirely voluntary. And it’s human nature to attach to beliefs for all kinds of irrational reasons and then to respond to challenges to those beliefs by becoming more and more deeply committed. The more voluntary the choice, the more deeply committed people can become, and especially if they’re paying money or investing a lot of time in it because then admitting that it was a mistake all along is all the more difficult.

    Look at how people can become committed to a political party affiliation in such a way that the actions of politicians in that party essentially cease to matter. Most political blogs seem to exist to provide rationalizations for party X and demonizations of party Y. That’s what people want.

    Another obvious one is religion. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I look at the claims of other religions (other than what I grew up with, I mean) and can’t fathom how someone could actually believe those things without having massive cognitive dissonance. But humans are able to commit to beliefs, and having committed, to subconsciously avoid even the obvious questions. Not about religion in particular, just in general, that’s something we’re prone to.

    And there are many more examples. Have you ever talked to someone involved in homeopathic remedies? (This one comes to mind because I have a friend who is involved in alternative medicine.) You won’t get a detached judgment about that from those who sell them, or from the consumers, and if anything the consumers are likely to be the most deeply committed and impassioned about the topic. On the other hand, you won’t get a detached evaluation from someone who thinks it’s a scam that sells distilled water at very high prices. And you may get a detached answer from someone who essentially knows nothing about the topic, but what’s the point in that?

    It’s pointless to look for detached views on pretty much anything. If you talk to Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, libertarians, greenies, etc., you’ll get a range of very much attached views, and if you talk to someone who is committedly apolitical you’ll get a different but still very attached view, but then what’s left? Someone who is apathetically apolitical may have a detached view of it all, but not in any useful way. The same goes for religions. You’re not going to get a detached view on any religion from either the believers or the well-informed non-believers who are committed to a different and conflicting religion, and you’re not going to get a detached view from an atheist or agnostic either.

    You won’t get a detached view about an activity from those who believe it’s a good thing, or from those who believe it isn’t a good thing. You won’t get a detached view of whether a liberal arts degree is a good thing from a university professor teaching in a liberal arts department at a liberal arts school (those in the engineering departments, if the school has them, may have quite a different opinion, but you probably won’t get that out of them in a professional setting), and you won’t get a detached view from the consumers of that product, i.e., students who invested a lot of time and money into getting such a degree, but you also won’t get a detached view from someone who thinks that a liberal arts degree is a very bad idea.

    In fact, most people don’t care about getting a detached view on most topics. We fall into beliefs more often than we choose them. If someone does want to decide something carefully and deliberately, it’s pointless to go looking for someone with a detached viewpoint because on any non-trivial sort of decision you won’t find any. Instead, people need to learn to talk to the proponents and the opponents, and weigh the pros and cons themselves. It’s not that talking to a proponent (paid to be a proponent or not) is pointless, it’s that only talking to proponents (or opponents) is pointless. Although that’s essentially what most people end up doing on most important decisions.

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