Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Four Kinds of Ideas: Part Three of the Democracy of Ideas

Truisms: Ideas of the First Kind 
Some ideas have a high correspondence to reality and they have a high attractiveness.   When a person is confronted by one of these ideas they are likely to snatch it up.  Its a handy, useful tool that requires very little effort to use.  These ideas are all over the place.  Some of them are so deeply established in our culture that it is odd to think of them as ideas at all.  We call these ideas ‘common sense’, or Truisms.  Some take the form of proverbs.  

Absurdly Simple Examples of Ideas of the first kind: 
1. Fire is hot and can burn you.  Note that believing this clearly can save you lots of pain, and as an idea it is easily learned, hopefully without having to be burned first.  
2. 10x10=100.  This is obviously true, and useful.  It is quite simple to learn.
3. April Showers bring May flowers.  Note that this one may not always be factual, but in many parts of North America, the flowers do bloom in May, and April can be a rainy month.  Therefore it has at least some correspondence to reality.  Also it has an emotional meaning: this small inconvenience will pay off later.   As for it being an attractive idea, it is quite simple, and its rhyming structure helps with memorization.     

Difficult Truths: Ideas of the Second Kind
Some ideas have a high correspondence to reality, but are difficult to learn, recall or understand.  As such, a person is less likely to absorb these ideas when confronted with them.  Another way to think about this type of idea is that there are only a small percentage of people who are prepared to absorb the idea when they are confronted by it.  These types of ideas are important however.  Our civilization has advanced only because some of these ideas have been promoted.  These types of ideas drive science, medicine and technology.  Without these types of ideas our ancestors would have never been able to advance beyond the most basic levels.  

An examples of Difficulty Truths:  Evolution by Natural Selection, Any concept in Physics (e.g., E=MC2 , Quantum Mechanics).  Natural Selection was particularly difficult for people to accept when it first was proposed (and among some subgroups it remains so).  But it is clearly an idea that corresponds to reality and is adaptive.  All of modern biology, and by extension much of modern medicine is dependent on this one idea.  

Thought Viruses: Ideas of the Third Kind 
Some ideas do not correspond well to reality, but due to other factors they are high in attractiveness.  When confronted with these ideas, individuals are likely to store them and pass them on.  These ideas are similar to a virus.  They provide no benefit for the host, but instead co-opt the hosts efforts into spreading them.  These ideas take many forms.  Some are simply lies, others are frauds, fictions, conspiracy theories, urban legends, propaganda, false advertising claims, or medical quackery.  

Examples: The belief that Vaccines cause autism.  This idea, when all the media hype settled down, turned out not to be true.  There never really was a controversy as there never was any scientific evidence for this claim.  Yet, it spread so virulently that many people assumed it had to be true.  Why?  Because Autism is a heartbreaking condition and it would be great if we could know its cause.  And if that cause was something simple and easy to understand, and something that parents have control over, well that would just be wonderful.  In retrospect it is easy to see why so many were convinced by empty hype.  But this idea is not true.  And holding this belief is certainly not adaptive, as recent measles outbreaks show.  

Psychotic Elements: Ideas of the Forth Kind
Some ideas do not correspond to reality at all, and they are not even attractive ideas.  When the average person comes in contact with these ideas they are not likely to absorb them, which is just as well because they are horribly distorted.  These ideas are present only in the context of psychosis, or other conditions where the ability of the brain to perform logical thinking has become impaired.  It seems a fully functioning brain offers us protection against ideas of the forth kind.  When impairment occurs, bizarre ideas can take hold. 

Examples: The government can watch you through your TV set.  Mind control messages from outer space can be blocked by wearing a tinfoil hat.  

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