Lots of bad ideas

If you’re reading a book (or watching a YouTube video) and you skip around, you’re going to miss a critically important point. It’s excusable in a math textbook, but it’s your own damn fault if you’re too impatient to sit through a two minute video. This recently happened to me, and if anyone actually read this blog it would have made me look like an idiot.  But there’s a darker side: None of my friends that commented on Facebook noticed that my numbers were completely wrong. They must have done the same thing I did: watch the beginning, feel patronized (policy-related media is invariably patronizing), skip to the end to see where it’s going, then skip around the middle to fill in the details. More likely, they just didn’t watch the video at all.

It takes a substantial amount of mental energy, and sometimes a nontrivial amount of time, to thoroughly examine and weigh an idea before allowing it to settle in your head. There are simply too many ideas out there, you only have so much brainpower. Then when an idea does settle, it’s extraordinarily hard to get rid of, because now it’s carved out its own space in your head that can really only be filled with more ideas.

Worse still, it’s very easy to convince yourself that your own ideas are good. So you go around authoritatively spreading your own ideas, and if your ideas are in fact not good, you’ve instilled a portion of those bad ideas in everyone who hears them. Or your ideas are good but nobody actually waits around to hear the whole story — they just absorb whatever part seems satisfying at the time and move on, because they are constantly bombarded with ideas and don’t have time to care much about yours.

But people do repeat what they think is true. No one remembers where they hear anything, but they remember the thing. Out of its original context, an idea might as well be their own idea, so they become convinced of the idea as if it were their own. So the cycle repeats, and your bad ideas–or distorted versions of your good ideas–end up spreading. Good luck tracking them down.

The result is that there are lots and lots of bad ideas out there, and they threaten to crowd out the good ones. There’s a strange push-pull between bad ideas and good ideas in the Internet age — we are bombarded with more ideas than ever before, so maybe we’re even less likely to have the time or the willpower to sift through them all for the good ones. On the other hand, maybe that also means we have a lot more practice, so maybe we’re much more efficient at it. I don’t know.


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