Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Intellectual Commodity--Part III


As of now we’ve established the importance of ideas as the building blocks of human works great and small. Their intrinsic value and effect on material commodities cannot be denied, nor can we deny that the marketplace of ideas is over-saturated. If information, knowledge, and ideas are crucial to human existence, and we are today overcome by a tidal-wave of data, how can we identify the good ideas from the bad?

Skepticism is crucial for qualifying conflicting ideas. Think of skepticism as putting an idea on trial. You would never expect a prosecuting attorney to build his entire case around the testimony of the accused and nothing else, would you? 

Think back to our crash-course on meme theory. Ideas survive, adapt, and replicate not because they are more valid than others but because they are good at surviving, adapting, and replicating. If we study an idea by itself we are not likely to obtain a fair assessment of the facts since its sole purpose is survival and replication. Just like a criminal facing capital punishment, ideas do and say what they must to continue existing. That is why good attorneys call a long list of people to the stand, from character-witnesses and eye-witnesses to experts in relevant fields. Each witness brings something new to the table.
In your mind's courtroom, you play the role of prosecutor, defense-attorney, and jury. As a result of
Try not to let the trial turn into this.
this amalgamation of roles, your job is neither to prove nor disprove the idea but rather to determine its validity toward your life. In 700 CE, Jianzhi Sengcan said: "If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against.The struggle between 'for' and 'against' is the mind's worse disease." To successfully rid yourself of "for" and "against," you must first dissolve your ego. Take your pride and remove it from the equation. Approach the question with a completely open mind. 

Next, call your witnesses to the stand. The more the better. News articles, books, Wikipedia, documentaries, message-boards, personal experience. These testimonies will form the backbone of your decision, but only if you filter them through a final--and crucial--filter.
From a paper detailing the "Cigarette Controversy," published in 2007:

"In 1994, heads of the major U.S. tobacco companies testified before Congress that the evidence that cigarette smoking caused diseases such as cancer and heart disease was inconclusive, that cigarettes were not addictive, and that they did not market to children. Less than 1 month after this testimony, a box containing confidential documents from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation was delivered to the University of California at San Francisco. What was revealed in these documents was evidence that the tobacco industry had for decades known and accepted the fact that cigarettes caused premature death, considered tobacco to be addictive, and that their programs to support scientific research on smoking and health had been a sham (
1-6)."

To recap: for decades, tobacco companies lied about the effects of their products and continued to sell cigarettes despite knowing that they caused a wide-range of health problems. The pertinent part here is that they hid this data, either buying the silence of independent researchers or funding their own pseudo-scientific studies to "prove" the safety of cigarettes. 

There is a costly lesson to be learned here. Knowing the source of the information is just as important as the information itself.

By qualifying the source of your information, you put the information into context. Would you take financial advice from a friend who is in enormous debt? Marriage advice from a life-long bachelor? Parenting advice from a childless aunt? You shouldn't discard it outright--after all, even a broken clock is right twice a day--but you would probably take such advice with a grain of salt.

Likewise, you should be vigilant when perusing the marketplace of ideas. Learn about your sources. Be on the lookout for conflicts of interest. Remember that people perceive reality through their own subjective lens, their views likely different from yours in some ways. Remember also that some people stand to gain or lose from the acceptance of certain ideas. Like the tobacco industry, these ones may resort to foul play in order to convince the unsuspecting. 

When you read an article like this, don't boycott TED and decry the organization as unreliable. Your broke friend might not know much about finances but maybe he has other wisdom to offer. Maybe he's great with the ladies or awesome at golf. Get to know your sources: only then can you truly assess the validity of their claims. TED Talks are still a valuable source of information, so long as the topic doesn't involve GMO's, food-as-medicine, or "pseudoscience." Any claims they make with regards to these topics should be immediately met with extreme skepticism. Otherwise, continue to exercise normal caution and you should be fine.
Smug bastard. Totally thinks he's better than me

In closing, I should note that most ideas are neither objectively good nor bad. In some ways ideas behave like stocks, their values rising and falling with the changing times. An idea's worth varies from person to person. Take divine rule, for example. The idea that a deity has chosen pharaoh Suchandsuch to rule Egypt benefits the pharaoh a great deal. 

The rest of Egypt? Not so much.  


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