[Previous] Some Flaws in Objectivism | Home | [Next] Misquoting Is Conceptually Similar to Deadnaming: A Suggestion to Improve EA Norms

How I Misunderstood TCS

I saw the blog "Taking Children Seriously" Is Bad. I agree. I’ve thought of more and more flaws with TCS as time has gone on and I’ve written some criticism. I’ve also put warnings/disclaimers on some of my old TCS writing. Also the TCS founders are bad people who are responsible for a harassment campaign against me. Anyway, I wanted to share some thoughts on how/why I didn’t notice TCS’s flaws sooner.

I think I misunderstood TCS for a bunch of reasons, but in a way where the version of TCS in my head was better than what David and Sarah meant. One thing that happened was DD said there was knowledge on some topics, and I believed him and tried to learn/understand it. Then I created some of it.

DD often let me talk a lot while making some comments, and he didn’t tell me when I was saying things that were new to him, which was misleading. I often thought I was figuring out things he already knew with some hints/help, when actually he was hiding his ignorance from me. The best example of this is my method for avoiding coercion, which was part of my attempt to learn (and organize and write down publicly) existing TCS knowledge, but was actually me creating new knowledge. And I’m not sure that to this day DD learned my avoiding coercion method or agrees with it or likes it. But without my method, how do you always find common preferences (quickly, not given unbounded time)? TCS has no real, substantive, usable answer. Just discuss and try, while trying to not be irrational and not coerce. TCS also lacks details for how to have a rational discussion. I’ve tried to understand/create rational methods more than TCS (or Popper) ever did with ideas like Paths Forward, Impasse Chains, decisive arguments, debate trees, and idea-goal-context decision making. TCS never had methods with that level of specificity and usefulness.

DD told me I was really good at drawing out explicit statements of knowledge he already had. But I think a lot of what happened is I brought up issues – via questions, criticism or explanations – which he hadn’t actually thought of. That prompted him to make new explicit statements to address my new ideas.

TCS had very broad, abstract claims like “problems are soluble”, as well as simple examples and naive advice. Examples of naive advice are that custody courts and child protective services aren’t very dangerous and you shouldn’t worry about them. Also saying that child predators are very rare and not really a concern even when saying that children are full adults in principle and advocating abolishing age of consent laws. Another example of the lack of substance in TCS advice was DD suggesting to tell teachers to let your child use the phone whenever he wants. If teachers (or babysitters, daycare workers, camp workers, etc.) would actually listen to that kind of request, that would be wonderful. But we don’t live in that world. And if we did, parents would be able to think of the idea “ask them to let my child use the phone whenever he wants” without DD’s help. It’s not a very clever idea; most parents could come up with that themselves (if they had the sort of goals where it’d be a good idea – most TCS-inclined parents would want their kid to be able to phone for help but some other parents wouldn’t actually want that).

Another thing that happened, from my perspective, is I won a lot of arguments. I criticized a lot of genuine errors. I thought that was important and useful, and would lead to progress. DD encouraged and liked it. It was useful practice for my own intellectual development. Before I found DD/TCS I was way above average at critical debate, logic, etc. But now I’ve improved a ton compared to my past self. The critical discussions had value for me but weren’t much use for changing the world. It didn’t help people much. They tended not to learn from criticism. And other people in the audience (besides whoever I was directly replying to) tended not to learn much even if they were making very similar mistakes to what I commented on, and they also tended not to learn much from my example about how to debate, think critically, get logic right, etc.

TCS seemed right and important to me because I used ideas related to it and won arguments. That made it seem to me like people were doing worse than TCS and TCS was a clear improvement. While TCS or any sort of gentle parenting has some improvements over mean parenting, I don’t think that was really the issue. I could have won a lot of arguments using other ideas too. The bigger issue is that people are bad at arguing, logic, learning and following ideas correctly, etc. So yeah they wouldn’t get even the basics of TCS right. In some sense, TCS didn’t seem to need more advanced or complex ideas because people weren’t learning and using the main ideas it did say. TCS is like “be way nicer to your kids guys” and then people post about how they’re mean to their kids and blind to it. They needed more practical help. They needed more guidance to actually learn ideas and integrate them into their lives. These are some of the things I’ve been working on with CF. TCS didn’t do that. It wasn’t actually very good.

TCS actually had ideas that were against being organized or methodical, or intentionally following long term goals. It was more like “follow the fun” and “being untidy helps you be creative” which are just personal irrationalities and errors of DD and SFC, not principles with anything to do with Popperian epistemology. I did OK at learning and making progress despite the lack of structure, but most people didn’t, and I think I would have learned more and faster with more organization and structure. I’ve now imposed more structure on my life and organized things more and it is not self-coercive for me; I’m fine with it and find it useful. I understand that for DD it would be self-coercive, but many people can do it some without major downsides, and DD is wrong and should really work on fixing his flaws. TCS never told people to practice anything but practice is a key part of turning intellectual ideas into something that makes a difference in your daily life (rather than only affecting some decisions that you use conscious analysis for, which often leads to clashes between your conscious and subconscious if you don’t do any practice).

This article itself isn’t very organized, but that’s an intentional choice. I’d rather put organizing and editing effort into epistemology articles for the CF website than into this article. I want to write this article cheaply (in terms of resource use like effort). Similarly, I could write a lot of detailed criticism of TCS and of DD’s books, but I don’t want to because I have other things to do. I’ve made some intentional choices about what to prioritize. My CF site has the stuff I think is most important to put energy into. It avoids parenting, relationships and politics. I think stuff about rationality itself is more important because it’s needed to deal with those other topics well. On a related note, I would like to study math and physics, but I don’t, because I don’t want to take the energy away from my philosophy work. TCS discouraged that kind of resource budgeting choice. But I don’t feel bad or self-coerced about it. I think it’s a good choice. I don’t have time or energy to do everything that would be nice to do. Prioritizing is part of life. If you don’t prioritize in a conscious or intentional way, you’ll still end up doing some things and not others. The difference will be some more important things don’t get done. Unintentionally not doing some things because you run out of time and energy won’t lead to better outcomes than making some imperfect, intentional, conscious decisions.

It’s important not to fight with yourself and suppress your desires with willpower. It’s important not to consciously choose some priorities that your subconscious disagrees with. People don’t live up to this perfectly. It’s a good goal to try to do better at, but don’t get paralyzed or sad about it. Just don’t purposefully suppress with willpower and think that’s a good longterm strategy to never improve.

It’s pretty common to like something subconscious/emotionally/intuitively and also think it’s important. That’s an achievable, realistic thing. Not everyone is really conflicted about prioritizing whatever their main interest or profession is. Some people like something and prioritize it and that works well for them. It’s not really all that special that I like philosophy, and do it, and I’m OK with deprioritizing math and physics even though those would be fun too. I don’t think DD can do it though, which is part of why he started TCS but later abandoned it – he has poor control over his priorities and they’re unstable. In retrospect, when he wrote over 100 blog posts about politics for his blog Setting the World to Rights, that was a betrayal of TCS. He could and should have written 100 articles about parenting instead (or if he didn’t want to, then don’t found a parenting movement and recruit people to join it in the first place – choose the politics blog instead).

Also, by saying things were very abusive, monstrous, etc., TCS implied the current state of the world was better than it is. Saying TCS was practical and immediately achievable also implied the world is better than it is. I didn’t realize how screwed up the world is and TCS was wrong about it. The world being more screwed up makes TCS thinking less reasonable. (It doesn’t affect abstract principles but it affects applications.) While TCS said most of the world is better than reality, it said all other parenting is really bad. It’s actually pretty common for people to notice errors in their speciality, think it’s a big problem, and assume other specialties aren’t so screwed up. It’s been said that people reading a newspaper article about their profession often see that it’s full of glaring, basic errors … but then for some reason they believe the same newspaper on every other topic. TCS saw parenting errors but believed the same society was reasonable on other topics. (TCS got some of the errors wrong, but there are plenty of real errors in everything so when you decide to be a harsh critic you’ll often get some things right. Or put another way, everything has lots of room for improvement. If you just try to point out flaws, then it’s not so hard to be right some. If you try to suggest viable ways to improve things, that’s much harder, because your suggestions will contain flaws too.)

The best parts of TCS were short, abstract general principles. Their applications of those principles were not so good. The best principles were unoriginal and came from Popper (rationality stuff) or classical liberalism (freedom, cooperative relationships, mutual benefit, win/win solutions). They were open about getting ideas from those two sources. What was more original were the specific applications to parenting, but those weren’t so good… What happened is I learned TCS by trying to understand and apply the principles myself. I reinvented a lot of the applications while trying to figure out the details because TCS didn’t have enough details and because I cared much more about the principles than about parenting (so did DD, who, for that reason, should not have founded a parenting movement – it would have been better if he made a philosophy blog instead, as I have done). Anyway when I worked out applications of the principles myself I came up with a lot of different conclusions without realizing it. That’s a common thing people do when they read something and don’t discuss much, but I was discussing with DD all the time and he didn’t tell me that I was coming up with new and different ideas, and he didn’t express disagreement with the stuff I came up with, which was really misleading to me. An example is that I figured out that TCS implies having only one child (at a time), but DD and SFC didn’t say that and I doubt they believe it, but I don’t recall DD ever expressing disagreement with that idea. TCS also said a bunch of stuff about getting helpers, but what I figured out is its principles suggest that even having a co-parent is very problematic because it gets in the way of taking individual responsibility for a very hard, unconventional project you’re doing where you need full control and can’t rely on others to be rational participants. Not having a co-parent is also very problematic so there’s a hard problem there that TCS doesn’t address at all. (Having only one kid has some problems too, btw. There are downsides to address which TCS hasn’t tried to develop knowledge about.) Having little other help besides a co-parent is reasonably realistic though – much more so than having other helpers who are actually TCS. Thinking you could have lots of TCS helpers is also related to the incorrect adequate society mindset of TCS.

Elliot Temple on October 1, 2022


Want to discuss this? Join my forum.

(Due to multi-year, sustained harassment from David Deutsch and his fans, commenting here requires an account. Accounts are not publicly available. Discussion info.)