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Wishful Thinking, Denial, and Self-Deception

American kids aren’t inherently less intelligent than kids in Singapore, or so one hopes. That’s the good news. The explanation for the Americans’ continued dismal performance in math therefore lies elsewhere.

- Eliot Brenowitz, Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, May 4, 2015



A society's surviving one serious problem does not guarantee it can overcome a different serious problem facing it later, any more than Sandra's surviving cholera in the past guarantees she can survive her current cancer.

If the American dream could survive the Depression, and then thrive in a way few people imagined, it can survive our current troubles.
- David Leonhardt, The American Dream, Quantified at Last, NYT. Dec. 8, 2016



Believing something because believing otherwise is "a pretty damn horrific thing to imagine":

“An extremely credible source has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” he [Trump] tweeted in 2012, to cite one lie among thousands.
I’m going to believe this same Donald Trump who urged Russia to interfere with an American election, because to believe otherwise, without irrefutable evidence, is a pretty damn horrific thing to imagine. It would mean that in a week, the Russians will have installed a stooge — and done it with the right wing of this country cheering them on.
- Timothy Egan, The Trump and Pony Show, NYT, Jan. 13, 2017



Trump has genuinely increased the economic pressure on North Korea through United Nations sanctions, and the pinch may increase. But one of the worst mistakes in international relations, plaguing us from Vietnam to Iraq, is to operate on wishful thinking rather than reality, and I fear that’s what’s happening here in a perilous way.
- Nicholas Kristof, Trump’s Scary Strategy on North Korea, NYT, OCT. 12, 2017


“It is curious — the unanimity with which everyone here refuses to believe in the possibility of war,” Origo writes in mid-July 1939, six weeks before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Only days before the fighting begins, Origo is in Florence listening to comments from ordinary Italians. “‘Don’t you worry, nothing’s going to happen!’ says the hairdresser, as he sees me reading the papers. ‘You’ll see, the Duce will stop the war at the last moment,’ says the taxi driver.”
- Alexander Stille, Witnessing the Rise of Fascism in Italy, NYT, Sept. 21, 2018


Nothing is all skill. I shy away from absolutes, but this one I embrace. Luck will always be a factor in anything we might undertake. Skill can open up new vistas, allow us to see the chance that others less skilled than us, less observant or less keen, may miss — but should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage.

And the biggest bluff of all? That skill can ever be enough. That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up. “It would be a very fine thing for the world if everyone were entitled, in some slight degree, to be lucky,” White says. We can’t ever know if we’ll manage to uphold that delusion or not. But we must convince ourselves that we can. That, in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.
- Maria Konnikova, Poker Taught Me How to Deal With the Hand of Fate, NYT, June 19, 2020





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