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Bad Ideas

That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one[5]

There are lots of examples of ideas that are not good for our health. These range from fashions for smoking (and other drugs) to fashions for body piercing or tattoos and junk food. Others may prevent us finding happiness or personal achievement (or are these ideas that make us promote them as goals?).

Ideas are not 'fittest' because they are true or right or good or beneficial but because they appeal to us, fit well with other strong ideas and are passed on by those able to multiply them most effectively. Hence 'my' ideas are just those to which I have been exposed and which fit best with others I have and all these together form my 'world view'.



movie ideas


Clearly humans are very susceptible to silly ideas. I have already said that we only progress by building on past ideas. It follows that already existing ideas are the powerhouse of our technological capabilities, artistic and intellectual advancement and civilisation.

But in this there is a grave risk. This is that ancient or even recent ideas gain the status of Truth; that these ideas cease to be open to question. Certain historical spokespersons for the ideas of their day are often held to have a special access to certain Truths and to be authorities for these ideas. Candidates for this special status have included Moses, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Jesus, Confucius, St Augustine, Darwin, and Einstein.

In everyday life we may fail to adequately question someone who claims to be an expert simply because they have worked in an area or have nothing more than a PhD in some related area.

One of the worst of all ideas is the appeal to authority; that certain ideas are beyond doubt just because 'I' or the Priest, the Establishment, our culture, our dreaming (or a God we set up for the purpose; The Bible) says so. The corollary is always that certain other ideas are not to be freely discussed. Authority is an idea that demonstrably holds us back from holding other, sometimes good, ideas.


closed to ideas


In my life I have seen many occasions when people with so-called qualifications have been seriously wrong when put to the test.

I have many, many examples; include the fool who once said for the benefit of others: 'I have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. What have you got?' Unfortunately for him I had a new, peer reviewed article from Scientific American supporting my assertion.

But my favourite example is an older physicist at the British Iron and Steel Research Association, where I worked for a period in London as an economist. For reasons I won't go into, I asserted that cooling the outside of a vacuum vessel, used to keep molten metal hot, would keep the metal hot longer than if the outside was not cooled. He foolishly went into an arrogant fit of hyperbola and used his qualifications; my lack of relevant qualifications; and his programmable HP pocket computer to 'prove' that I was wrong, citing the second law of thermodynamics.

I had already considered this apparent paradox at length with another colleague before presenting my paper and was quite confident of my position. So an experiment was set up and when I turned out to be right, he had a most ignominious climb-down and apology to give, to the delight of my boss.

Of course, like all of us, I am often wrong. But it is one of the benefits of being knowledgeable in areas where you not an 'Authority', that you can be wrong without disgrace and right because you are right.

As a result I have learnt from others, more foolish or unlucky than I, never to say, 'I am right and you are wrong because I have such and such authority, position, status or qualification'. Rather you should always put the arguments for your belief and be ready to be corrected if wrong.

The first break-through idea of the Enlightenment was to make all ideas subject to doubt; including the idea of God and mankind's status as the object of Creation and the centre of the Universe. The second was to evolve a system for testing ideas for their utility (scientific method - logical positivism; discussed elsewhere).

For the great part of the past one hundred thousand years we have been capable of holding any human idea, including how to go to the Moon or decode DNA, but bad ideas prevailed to hold us back. As a result for most of that time we lived lives that were short, brutal, diseased, and conflicted.

As I have already remarked the oldest technologically empowering ideas are but a few hundred years old the great bulk a few tens of years old. In general these ideas have dragged other ideas and social structures behind them. Our social structures now accommodate IVF and a wide range of new media and communications. Since rejecting some limiting ideas we have cured many diseases and life expectancy and well-being has risen.

I admit to having held bad ideas and I probably still hold many. One common source of bad ideas is the prejudices from our upbringing, early education and bad experiences.

I came to Australia with my parents just after the end of World War Two. The Korean War was current while I was in Primary school and there were strong political and religious (Christian/Christian) divisions in society. We settled on the outskirts of Sydney in Thornleigh, which was still semi-rural. Parochialism, and racism, was strong. Attitudes towards 'New Australians' (including English boys like me), Asians and Aborigines were unreformed.

To fit in to this society we all had to accept certain values. I have had to explore each of these and test it against later experience and knowledge. In this I have found my education, subsequent reading and international work and travel most useful in eliminating at least some of my prejudices; but also in confirming other beliefs and ideas as sound.

Until I met and worked with a wider range of people I was inclined to believe that there was a racial difference between people that justified the prejudice that I grew up with; for example that although Ethiopians could run longer, faster they were unlikely to win a Nobel prize for Physics. But experience and education has shown me that race is no predictor of who will win a race.

As Martin Luther King Jnr said:

I have a dream; that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

There is far less variation in ability between races than within them. The principal difference between individuals is their experience, exposure to knowledge and access to education, based on good ideas; in other words: culture.

In this context a postmodern view is that all cultures and cultural values are equal. This is a bad idea. I have said elsewhere that the only significant difference between a child brought up in modern society and one growing up in Africa 70,000 years ago is that the modern child is born into a civilisation with the established institutions and methods that lead to a different set of perceptions and behaviours.

There is far more to a modern culture than meets the eye. Although modern social infrastructure, like systems of education and justice, the postal system, public transport, electricity, communications and water supply rely on scientific, philosophical and legal traditions that have evolved during 500 years or so, underlying social values and interactions are much more mature.

The cultural values that govern social behaviour; that we learn from our parents and our peer groups, have ancient roots. An Elizabethan would be totally bemused by a mobile phone, a car or an aircraft. Yet Shakespeare's or even Homer's characters still speak to us in a cultural voice we understand; with which we empathise. I discuss culture further later in this essay.

The life you lead is governed by the culture into which you are born. Too often we ignore this when we claim intrinsic cultural values of primitive societies.

While it is difficult to deny a higher 'intrinsic value' for a primitive artefact than say a picture dashed up in a couple of hours by a Pro Hart disciple; or between native music and the work of a group of 15 year old musicians in a garage, these comparisons are made in the context of our culture.

We have art galleries; we have a music recording industry; and we have a cultural art market. Primitive cultures do not. By applying our standards in these areas to primitive cultures we have contributed to the dysfunction of many of these societies and helped make their continued existence in their ancient form impossible.

I do not believe that primitive cultures are the equivalent of ours. Cultures ought to be judged by their results.

Those in which people live longer, healthier lives with opportunities to travel; to become educated; and to pursue a wide range of personal goals, should be judged superior to those in which people are condemned to an early death and a life of squalor.

Yet there are well meaning people (apart from those that derive a living from the exploitation of native people or their artefacts) who defend dysfunctional primitive 'cultures' as if they were noble and need to be perpetuated, even in their corrupted form; and in doing so condemn those who cannot escape them.

Although we have made progress in reducing racism, sexism and religious prejudice, our present culture is by no means perfect either. It maintains a huge 'dung heap' of useless and harmful ideas that it adds to daily. You can actually get a degree in 'alternative' medicine (a contradiction; if a medicine satisfies the test of scientific verifiability it can no longer be alternative).

Horoscopes, gossip, fashion news and sports coverage fill our papers. Pop singers, dress designers, models and sports stars are paid more than medical graduates or engineers. Much of the 'News' is nothing more than gossip, with no immediate relevance to the audience. The advertising industry is expert in purveying nonsense. I could fill a couple of pages.

But perhaps the worst, and most widely held, of all bad ideas is the totally unverifiable, improbable idea that there is a life to be participated in after we die. It is related to the equally unsupported idea that a 'soul' gets handed out to a human foetus (but only a human foetus) at conception that then becomes an eternal feature of the Universe.

These ideas would fall into the wrong but funny and harmless category (like astrology) if they did not encourage religious fanatics of all sorts to believe that antisocial attacks on others will be rewarded in the afterlife (9/11, Bali, the UN Mission in Iraq and McVeigh in Oklahoma City) or impede the development of a world population policy. I discuss this idea at length elsewhere in this essay.

This is a rather bleak conclusion to this chapter so let's move on to something more amusing.


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