In praise of dullness

Created: 2014-12-22
Status: notes; belief: emotional, unlikely


“And some books ought to burn, trying for character
but just faking it. More disturbing
than book ashes are whole libraries that no one
got around to writing—desolate
towns, miles of unthought-in cities,
and the terrorized countryside where wild dogs
own anything that moves. If a book
isn’t written, no one needs to burn it—
ignorance can dance in the absence of fire.”

—William Stafford1

Dullness has possibly already been praised enough times in different forms. For instance, take Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Dullness2.

Then there is David Brooks, writing for the New York Times. In “In Praise of Dullness”, he reports that the “traits that correlated most powerfully with success [for CEOs] were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours”, not “psychological insight, a feel for human relationships, a greater sensitivity toward their own emotional chords”—and thus CEOs need not spend their time reading novels.

Noam Chomsky on sports:

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

This is not an isolated case of the remark:

Take, say, sports – that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it – you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about – [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in – they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

But “dullness” is just another way of saying “boringness”; and of boringness there is already some praise indeed. See for instance Qiaochu Yuan in “Boring Advice Repository” on Less Wrong:

It seems plausible that, when giving advice, many people optimize for deepness or punchiness of the advice rather than for actual practical value. There may be good reasons to do this - e.g. advice that sounds deep or punchy might be more likely to be listened to - but as a corollary, there could be valuable advice that people generally don’t give because it doesn’t sound deep or punchy. Let’s call this boring advice. [Emphasis in original.]

In “Culture is not about esthetics”, gwern argues that we ought to discourage the production of new entertainment content—novels, poems, music, movies, etc. But this is but one form of excess, though a particularly notable one. We can consider material excess, but, being in the age of the attention economy, we might look for excess in information. Many have argued that news is a waste of time, for instance.

but those are on the receiving end; what about content creation? Should some things never be said?

There is the difficult virtue of silence:

One example of silence I deeply appreciate is people who don’t talk about the latest viral issue. I’m trying to think of an example that’s not too destructive to bring up…hmmmm…go for something old…Elevatorgate! Nearly everyone who talked about Elevatorgate mentioned that it was outrageous that the blogosphere was making such a big deal about it, missing the similarity to the old adage that “you aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” Somewhere there was someone who wanted to write about Elevatorgate, thought about it, and decided not to. That person deserves the sincere thanks of a grateful Internet.

And of course, controversial ideas receive more views


Nobody cares about charity. Everybody cares about politics, especially race and gender. Just as televangelists who are obsessed with moving to a sweeter pad may come to think that donating to their building fund is the one true test of a decent human being, so our universal obsession with politics, race, and gender incites people to make convincing arguments that taking and spreading the right position on those issues is the one true test of a decent human being.


In writing, being dull also implies not having very much of a voice. It also favors writing that defines few new terms (something that LessWrong can’t stop doing3), and even when it does have new terms, defines jargon early.

Bryan Caplan on bubbles:

Also from (Internet Archive,

If helping SMNs is the goal, I think I know a better way. As usual, I recommend self-help. Specifically: SMNs should exclude hostile feminists from their Bubble. (Further background). Stop arguing with hostile feminists. Stop reading them. If you know any in real life, stop associating with them. Even if they have halfway decent reasons for berating you, you’re clearly not right for each other. The best response is to amicably go your separate ways.

(See also the follow-up by Caplan.)

Thoughts on gwern’s blackmailing page:

Forward to Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

His early sharing of the life of the poor also led him to the discov- ery of what he describes as the “culture of silence” of the dispos- sessed. He came to realize that their ignorance and lethargy were the direct product of the whole situation of economic, social, and political domination—and of the paternalism—of which they were victims. Rather than being encouraged and equipped to know and respond to the concrete realities of their world, they were kept “submerged” in a situation in which such critical awareness and response were practically impossible. And it became clear to him that the whole educational system was one of the major instruments for the maintenance of this culture of silence.

Page 33:

At first sight, Paulo Freire’s method of teaching illiterates in Latin America seems to belong to a different world from that in which we find ourselves in this country. Certainly, it would be absurd to claim that it should be copied here. But there are certain parallels in the two situations that should not be overlooked. Our advanced technological society is rapidly making objects of most of us and subtly programming us into conformity to the logic of its system. To the degree that this happens, we are also becoming submerged in a new “culture of silence.”

Caplan on happiness research:

There’s a mini-literature on whether the study of economics causes people to become more selfish. Has anything been written on whether the study of happiness causes people to become more happy?

My guess is that studying happiness doesn’t cause happiness. Has anyone shown otherwise?

Similarly, does talking about politics/feminism/gender/race actually advance our knowledge of these issues?

  1. William Stafford. “Burning a Book”. Ask me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford.

  2. Not to be confused with his In Praise of Idleness.

  3. For instance, even when “daydreaming instead of working” suffices, a LessWrong blogger will write “identity crafting”.

Tags: boringness.

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