An Epidemic of Bad Ideas

From Glenn Harlan Reynolds in The USA Today, Social media threat: People learned to survive disease, we can handle Twitter:

Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

Maybe there are some lessons for us here. We don’t know much about the spread of ideas, or what would constitute the equivalent of intellectual indoor plumbing. (Censorship isn’t enough, as it often just promotes the spread of bad ideas that people in power like). Over time we’ll learn more. Maybe we’ll come up with something like the germ theory of disease for ideas.

Where we can do something right away is with the equivalent of nutrition. Traditional training in critical thinking — the sort of thing the humanities used to revolve around, before they became focused on “social justice” — seems like it would be a useful protective. A skepticism regarding groupthink, ad hominem arguments and virtue signaling would likely offer considerable protection against the sort of mass hysteria we seem increasingly vulnerable to. Likewise, a social consensus on important ideas — the kinds of things we used to teach in civics classes — would help.

Better nourished minds are likely more resistant to social-media contagion.


An excellent and creative piece.  A creative writer can find illumination in seemingly unrelated ideas.  Read the whole piece.

Promoting Stupidity

from Higher Education’s Deeper Sickness by John Ellis at The Wall Street Journal:

The imbalance is not only a question of numbers. Well-balanced opposing views act as a corrective for each other: The weaker arguments of one side are pounced on and picked off by the other. Both remain consequently healthier and more intellectually viable. But intellectual dominance promotes stupidity. As one side becomes numerically stronger, its discipline weakens. The greater the imbalance between the two sides, the more incoherent and irrational the majority will become.

What we are now seeing on the campuses illustrates this general principle perfectly. The nearly complete exclusion of one side has led to complete irrationality on the other. With almost no intellectual opponents remaining, campus radicals have lost the ability to engage with arguments and resort instead to the lazy alternative of name-calling: Opponents are all “fascists,” “racists” or “white supremacists.”

In a state of balance between the two sides, leadership flows naturally to those better able to make the case for their side against the other. That takes knowledge and skill. But when one side has the field to itself, leadership flows instead to those who make the most uncompromising and therefore intellectually least defensible case, one that rouses followers to enthusiasm but can’t stand up to scrutiny. Extremism and demagoguery win out. Physical violence is the endpoint of this intellectual decay—the stage at which academic thought and indeed higher education have ceased to exist.


I contend that this same lack of intellectual diversity and demonization of dissent has infected  many of our media institutions with the same result.  Misleading statements are only judged by their factual components.  Lines between news and opinion have been erased.  Those in the bubble are convinced of their rightness and righteousness because they have excluded or marginalized legitimate and serious questions.

Trend Illusions

by Henry Oliner

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli (highly recommended) is a compilation of biases and psychological barriers to clear and rational thinking. Dobelli warns of “trend gurus who see trends in everything”.  He contends this is “one of the most idiotic ways to see the world.”

This is like our tendency to see shapes in clouds and to see patterns in data and numbers. Given our ability to amass vast quantities of data and our desire for order in the universe, this is a seductive pattern. It is unsettling to believe we are pawns in a casino.

The danger in these delusions is that we believe it enables our power to predict.  This “gambler’s fallacy” of seeing order where there is none causes financiers to make bad investments, pundits to make bad predictions, and politicians to enact bad policy.  This delusion causes less damage in business and investment because the damage is usually limited to the fools (often some very credentialed fools) and the mistake is rectified relatively quickly.

One of the reasons that government solutions should be a last resort is because political decisions are as subject to these errors in thinking as private sector decisions, but there are greater blocks to recognizing and correcting the error in judgment. Politics is part rational but also part tribal.

For some experienced yet biased investors, it was inevitable that Trump’s election would result in a market sell off. It didn’t. It resulted in the one of the sharpest market advances after an election in recent history.

When Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914 few would have predicted it would have led to World War One, the inept Armistice and soon after, World War Two and the Cold War.  If Princip had done the same deed a few months before or a few months after we could not be certain it would have had the same results.

The trend fallacy seems to work in hindsight.  Some movements go to extreme and invite countertrends.  After 50 years of expansive progressivism culminating in the stagnation of the 1970’s,  Ronald Reagan won claiming that government is more of the cause than the solution. A similar exhaustion may have provided some wind to Donald Trump’s sails.  But we should not confuse the power to describe with the power to predict.

While a complicated world may be unpredictable, that does not mean that behaviors are irrelevant. Excessive debt makes a family or a corporation or a government vulnerable to unpredictable events.  We may confuse talent and success for a mere regression to the mean, but predicting the timing of these outcomes or how they will become actualized is a fool’s game.

What appears to be a difference in political ideology may be a mere difference in time frame. Long term outcomes may be ignored for the short-term payoff of a vote or a campaign contribution.  We may lament the failure of policy after the first act of the play, only to see it succeed wildly after the third act, if we choose to stay for the entire play.  Patience is not a popular American virtue.

The first step to honesty is clarity. Good decision making is already difficult to achieve. To cloud it further with unnecessarily complicated systems designed to hide and cross subsidize costs is not likely to lead to better outcomes.

The Half Life of Populism

From Kevin Williamson at National Review, ‘Winning’ Isn’t Winning

It is often the case that populism has a short shelf life, after which is ceases to be popular. There is a reason for that: Populism is almost always based on a false hope. Populist demagogues such as Trump arise when people are broadly dissatisfied with the national state of affairs and begin to lose confidence in critical institutions. Along comes a charismatic outsider — or someone doing a good impersonation of one — who offers an alternative. Trump-style populism is an almost entirely negative proposition: “I’m not one of Them.” What happens next is in most cases what’s been happening with Trump: The promise of radical change quickly gets mired down in the messy realities of democratic governance. (If you’re lucky, that’s what happens; absent the messy realities of democratic governance, what you end up with is Venezuela.) The “independent” man, the “outsider,” turns out not to have the experience, knowledge, or relationships to get much done. The savior doesn’t deliver the goods.

The Function of Political Parties

from Bring Back Political Parties by Kevin Williamson at National Review :

As it turns out, political parties are — like churches, civic groups, unions, trade groups, lobbyists, pressure groups, and business associations — part of the secret sauce of civil society. In much the same way as our senators — in their original, unelected role — were expected to provide a sober brake on the passions of the members of the more democratic House of Representatives, political parties exercised a soft veto that helped to keep extremism and demagoguery in check. Anybody can run for president — but not just anybody can run as the candidate of the Republican party or the Democratic party. Third parties face an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot prevail: The Republican party was a very successful third party, displacing the moribund Whigs.

The denuded political parties provide an important fund-raising and administrative apparatus — along with a tribal identity that is arguably more important — but they do not offer much more than that. Instead, we have relatively little in the way of mediating institutions between candidates and the public at large. If Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are your idea of great political leaders, then you probably don’t see a problem with that. You’re a fool, but you’re a fool who is likely to get his way in the coming years. The difference between a republic and a democracy is that republics put up more roadblocks between fools and their desires.

The project to make the Democratic party an instrument of the Clinton campaign in order to prevent Bernie Sanders from making it an instrument of his own ambitions was dishonest, corrupt, and possibly illegal.

It was also exactly what political parties are supposed to do. A little democracy, like a little whiskey, is a good thing — too much and you end up with Ted Kennedy.