The Good And The Popular

That I believe the set of what’s popular and the set of what’s good aren’t always the same thing should come as no surprise to readers here, especially in the wake of my Kardashian post the other day, but I should make it clear that this idea extends quite a bit farther. As such, I need to respond to something that Scott Adams suggested at his blog today. He pointed out that sometimes he tosses out ideas that are unconventional, unworkable, possibly ludicrous, but with the assumption that the market of minds will sift through ideas and those which are useful will propagate:

We humans like to think we control ideas, but it’s probably more accurate to say we do little more than bury the ideas that are broken on delivery. If you suddenly have an idea for a car made entirely of potato chips, you probably keep it to yourself. But if you have a bad idea about how the President should manage the country, you’ll probably have a few drinks at your next social gathering and let it fly. Human are transmitters, not filters. By analogy, the Internet can detect bad data packets, but not bad ideas. We’re like the Internet.

In this context, I see myself as a collector, combiner, and broadcaster of ideas, both good and bad. I spray ideas into the universe and let the ideas fight for their own survival. With the help of their human hosts, the best ideas will evolve and reproduce, and the worst ideas will go to their resting places on the Internet.

I’m explaining all of this because of a comment that user Unlost made about my post yesterday. After reading my ideas for how I would run my presidency, Unlost said, “Priceless, yet this will all go unheeded.” I understand the pessimism, but I see it differently. The ideas I unleashed yesterday are already waging a guerrilla war with the status quo. The ideas are hopping from host to host, and if any are worthy, they will evolve and survive. Change doesn’t happen quickly, but I guarantee that any good ideas generated by this blog – if there are any – will find their way. The weak ideas will fade to backup storage, as they should.

The idea that only the good ideas propagate wildly is a long shot. For a good idea to propagate, a critical condition must be met: humans must have enough education/experience in the subject matter to know which ideas are good. This is an unmet condition in many, MANY aspects of humanity. What’s even worse, to steal a phrase, is not that humans don’t know enough to determine which ideas to propagate, it’s that what they know just ain’t so.

Much of economics revolves around teaching that what sounds good isn’t necessarily good. A higher minimum wage sounds like a great policy — until you realize that the tradeoff is higher unemployment [especially amongst low-skilled workers who most need the job], and often higher prices and potentially inflation. Or, that rent control doesn’t lead to more affordable housing, but rather a glut of luxury properties (not covered by rent control) that those who were supposed to benefit from rent control can’t afford.

The average person will look at something that seems to offend their sensibilities (such as, for example, the Netflix/Qwikster fiasco), everyone assumes that when a company does something wrong, it’s immediately a matter of idiocy. But as Megan McArdle points out, perhaps they made a bad decision for the right reasons. What looks right or wrong from the outside isn’t always the right or wrong decision when you actually know the particulars.

As a general rule, if you look at something that you have only passing familiarity with and ask yourself “well, why the hell did they do it that way? That’s just stupid!” They say this without realization that there may have been a great deal of history behind how something was done, and that perhaps without that history or experience, you may not understand whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

What Scott Adams leaves out is the cost of an idea. In many cases, believing something or not believing something is a costless act. Whether or not I believe in raising or abolishing the minimum wage has an absolutely infinitesimal probability of affecting what happens to the minimum wage. Thus, having an opinion, or choosing not to have an opinion [i.e. rational ignorance] really affects very little. And if it affects very little, investing time into making an informed decision — whether propagating an idea or not — is wasting that time. Contrast this, for example, to having an idea about NAND management strategies for dealing with the problem of read disturb. Given that this is integral to my employment, it behooves me to understand the concepts deeply, make informed decisions about cost-benefit analysis of competing approaches, and the validity of such an idea will be tested by sales and field reliability data of a product.

Politics and economics: the history of these disciplines are full of the damage cause by bad ideas. Some of the key aspects of both fields is that in these fields, the immediate cost of holding bad ideas is essentially nil, on the personal level, and thus such ideas are incredibly widespread. I don’t believe anyone can defend the proposition that bad ideas are on the decline.

  • Akston

    This is about Newt, isn’t it? ;)

    But seriously, as to the cost of ideas and separating “good” ideas from “bad” ideas, you remind me of Matt Ridley’s Ted talk a year and a half ago: When Ideas Have Sex.

    In it, he introduces an interesting concept where he marries the ideas of natural selection and trade. In natural selection, generations of organisms have sex, combine genes, and adapt or perish accordingly. In trade, human populations mingle, share ideas (the ideas have sex), and the resultant goods and services prevail or are “creatively destroyed”.

    I’m guessing you’ll have already seen this talk, or read Ridley’s book, “The Rational Optimist”, but some of your readers may not have.

    I highly recommend at least the Ted Talk (16:27 min):

    The book takes off from there.

    As to the more specific gist of your post, I have to agree. The step from “my great idea” to “my abuse of power ” has been hardly a full stride historically, and is usually on a pretty infamous road.