A Downside of the Marketplace of Ideas

From “Why bad ideas refuse to die”:

There is certainly some truth in the thought that competition between ideas is necessary for the advancement of our understanding. But the belief that the best ideas will always succeed is rather like the faith that unregulated financial markets will always produce the best economic outcomes. As the IMF chief Christine Lagarde put this standard wisdom laconically in Davos: “The market sorts things out, eventually.” Maybe so. But while we wait, very bad things might happen.

The article is about how conspiracy theories, like the resurgent flat-Earth theory, continue to thrive in an environment full of—indeed, constantly bombarded by—information that should sink the ideas once and for all. These kids of theories survive for all kinds of reasons (comfort, intrigue, a desire for cohesion in a cold, indifferent universe), but one reason, as I wrote about here, is that many conspiracies really did happen. From the article:

And we should not give in to the temptation to conclude that belief in a conspiracy is prima facie evidence of stupidity. Evidently, conspiracies really happen. Members of al-Qaida really did conspire in secret to fly planes into the World Trade Center. And, as Edward Snowden revealed, the American and British intelligence services really did conspire in secret to intercept the electronic communications of millions of ordinary citizens. Perhaps the most colourful official conspiracy that we now know of happened in China. When the half-millennium-old Tiananmen Gate was found to be falling down in the 1960s, it was secretly replaced, bit by bit, with an exact replica, in a successful conspiracy that involved nearly 3,000 people who managed to keep it a secret for years.

And for all of them that are suggested that didn’t really happen, there are hundreds of other theories that just as well could happen, given the power, corruption, greed, and inhumanity of most modern governments. I can’t remember where I read this line, but it stuck with me: the lizard-people theory is resonant mainly because the people in the corporate-military elite are so different from the rest of us that they might as well be lizards.

The Earth really is round, though.

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