Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Say it with me: dumb ideas are dumb

There is a prevalent and dangerous meme rife in society today, and though some people may find the following offensive, judgemental or unfashionable, I believe it needs to be said. Your forbearance is therefore appreciated while I do so. ;-)

First, some axioms. These should be unarguable:

  • Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
  • Not everyone's opinions is as valid, useful or has as much merit as everyone else's in every single situation.
  • Nobody is entitled to their own facts.
  • You have freedom of speech, thought and association. You do not have freedom from criticism, freedom from offence or freedom from correction.

The problem happened where the first axiom (a healthy recognition that other people have different opinions) turned into the second and subsequent beliefs; that everyone's opinion is equally valid, and that contradicting someone in error is impolite, arrogant or somehow infringing on their freedoms.

One look in some Lit Crit classrooms will show you what happens when you aren't allowed to contradict or dispute someone else's opinions, and one look in a politicised fundamentalist church will show you what happens when you believe you're allowed your own facts, instead of just your own opinions.

And while people might enjoy studying Lit Crit or subscribe to fundamentalist religions, if they've got any sense they'll notice that people acting in either of these two roles have rarely done anything tangible to better the overall lot of their fellow man... unlike all those rude, elitist, judgemental, snobby scientists, engineers, geeks and other educated types (who instinctively recognise that ideas vary in quality and efficacy, and have therefore been quietly and industriously changing the world for the better for the last few hundred years).

The Western world (ably lead, as ever, by America) is learning the hard way what happens when you confuse recognition of existence of everyone's opinions with equality or worth of everyone's opinions. Moreover, while we mouth thought-terminating clich├ęs like "everyone deserves an equal say", we routinely disregard them in practice. Who seriously consults their toddler in the back seat on how to get home when lost in the car? Who leaves their neurosurgeon's office and seeks a second opinion from their local garage mechanic?

It's ok to judge and disregard things which demonstrably have no merit. We commonly all agree that "all people" deserve some sort of minimum baseline freedoms, protection, treatment and standard of living. And yet we still deny some of those benefits to those people who we have judged and found undeserving of them or actively dangerous (imprisoned criminals, for example).

We try to pretend that all ideas are equal, but it's not true - some ideas are brilliant, explanatory and useful, but some are stupid, dangerous or self-destructive. And refusing to judge them and pretending those ideas are harmless, valid or beneficial has much the same effect on society in the long term as refusing to judge dangerous people would have on society - internal chaos and developmental stagnation.

We don't have to ban stupid ideas or opinions, like we don't have to kill criminals. Instead we isolate criminals using jails so they can't damage society any more.

We can do the same with ideas, simply by agreeing they're dumb.

Refusing to publicly label a dumb idea "dumb" for fear of offending someone is - long term - as bad for our culture and society as refusing to lock away criminals "because their families might be upset".

Although it's unpopular to point out, sometimes people and ideas need to be judged for the good of society, even if it does end up upsetting or offending some people.

For the last decade or two - beginning around the advent of political correctness, though I suspect that was a symptom rather than a cause - we've done the intellectual equivalent of systematically dismantling the judicial system and all the courts and prisons in society. Now - in the same way if we dismantled all the prisons we'd be overrun with criminals - we're overrun with stupid ideas, unqualified but strongly-expressed opinions and people who act as if they can choose their own facts.

The only way you can help redress this situation is by not being afraid to offend people - if someone says something stupid, call them on it. Politely but firmly correct when people make erroneous claims. Question badly-thought-out ideas, and don't let people get away with hand-waving or reasoning based on obvious flaws or known logical fallacies. Yes they'll get annoyed, and yes they'll choose to take offence, but we don't free criminals because they or their families are "offended" at their having to stay in prison. They are there - largely - because they deserved and invited it, and because the world is better with them there. Likewise, dumb ideas deserve and invite correction, and the world would be a better place for everybody if more people judged and criticised them when we came across them.

Sometimes uncomfortable things do need to happen to people, and certainly if they invite them. There's no advancement without the possibility of failure, and removing the opportunity for failure removes the opportunity to develop. If no-one ever tells you you're wrong, how will you ever learn?

But most important of all, while judging people is unfashionable, can be dangerous and should largely be left to trained professionals, don't ever be afraid to judge ideas.


Michael said...

Well said

Anonymous said...

I may be wrong, but in your second axiom, I believe "opinions" should be "opinion." In the spirit of the post...

POSC said...

You'd probably like "The Principles of Social Competence"

Naomi said...

I would consider it a great insult if I was not corrected when wrong. It would be condescending to think that I couldn't deal with the truth, no matter how old I get.

Anonymous said...

Very nice.

If it was normal in society to correct or criticize other people's ideas, then at the very least it would put enough social pressure on all individuals to motivate them to stay informed and have well thought-out and articulated ideas. I would imagine that even if "pursuing knowledge or truth" wasn't the driving force, not looking stupid would be and the number of these often ill-informed ideas or invalid but strongly expressed opinions would decrease.

Anonymous said...

Dumb ideas are dumb!

BarZ said...

The writing going on in my head doesn't always translate well on paper/internet so when finding this write up you couldn't have said it any better. Not only do I totally agree with you I feel that this needs to be read by every human during schooling, this concept needs to be noticed and utilized.

Anonymous said...

Yes. I wish that crit theorists and religious fundies realized how much they have in common. I have trolled Jezebel and Stormfront and they are honestly pretty similar.

LloydsTSB Internet Banking said...

It's rather pitiful how many people confuse "i'm entitled to my opinion" with "my opinion is equally correct and worthy of attention."

Kyreena said...

Thanks for this. I've always been very opinionated; I tell people if I feel they have a badly biased opinion, have missed a fact or facts, or are simply wrong. It does mean that I get into a lot of conflicts, which is something I handle quite badly a lot of the time, as I dilike arguing.

It especially doesn't help that I am so dedicated to making sure people are not biased in their understanding of a situation that I play devil's advocate, something that is a sure fire way to make people think you're a bad, ignorant person :/

I often wonder why I even do it, and have in fact started cutting back because I'm sick of the conflict and would rather leave them ignorant now. But this has made reminded me why I do it, and also reminded me of the importance of doing it.

Thank you.