On Being Wrong

by F.

The other night I went out with a friend who wouldn’t stop blathering about his various speculative theories on physics, human psychology, and the philosophy of science. Every once in a while, I would see an opening in the verbiage barrage and ask, “What is the evidence for that?” But the response was generally, “This is just my perspective.” And my response, which I didn’t share out loud, was, “And why is that interesting to me?” I also kept wondering, “Are you high?”

This doesn’t mean I don’t like to gossip or hear people’s personal stories—I love to. A personal anecdote or story is interesting. What’s not interesting is a theory that has little hope of being right. If someone says to me, “My dog died and I missed her terribly, because when I used to come home from work, she would bring me my shoes, and I miss seeing those little drops of spittle on the cork footbed of my Birkenstocks” or something like that, that’s interesting. If someone says to me, “My dog died and now her soul is with the Rigellians on Theta-Tau, in the Gooznob quardrant, because, you know, dogs have been worshipped for thousands of years, largely because they are descended from extraterrestrials who arrived here through a wormhole”—if I hear that, then I sort of lose interest.

Part of this is “memetic hygiene,” a phrase coined by the authors of a wonderful little book called Mind Performance Hacks. The basic idea is that, just like you don’t go around having sex with folks infected with STDs, you should be careful whom you talk to, because you can get infected with bad ideas or data (memes). And if you do have to talk to the local, say, racist, be sure on put on your cognitive condom.

Here are nine suggestions for productive memetic sex, from Mind Performance Hacks:

1. Seek partners outside your family. Inbreeding is sex between two individuals that are genetically too similar, and it often produces low-quality offspring. The memetic equivalent of inbreeding (memetic incest) is groupthink, which sometimes happens when two or more people who are too similar try to create something. It’s a commonplace idea that Hollywood is incestuous: the same people with the same limited set of ideas meet over and over. Is it any surprise, then, that so many Hollywood movies are so bad and that so many of them look so similar? The logical culmination of memetic inbreeding is Jonestown.

2. Seek partners within your species. Conversely, sometimes people try to memetically mate outside their memetic species. From the perspective of one specialist (such as a Chaucer expert), another specialist (such as a particle physicist) is a member of another memetic species. Because memetics is fluid, it’s not true that you can never create ideas with someone dissimilar from yourself, because all humans have some memes in common. Nevertheless, the rabid anime fan and the rabid model railroad enthusiast are relatively mutually infertile.

3. Broaden your taste. Members of two different memetic species can sometimes spark interesting ideas from each other, and it’s good to remain open to that possibility. From the perspective of a generalist or comprehensivist, however, a specialty is less like a species and more like a memetic fetish. Generalists are flexible; because they don’t have fetishes (specialties) themselves, they can enjoy memetic sex with other generalists and also with specialists of all kinds. Generalists are, in short, memetic sluts, and they have a great time, but you don’t have to be a memetic slut to benefit from broadening your tastes.

4. Make sure your partners are healthy. On the other hand, even generalists probably shouldn’t have memetic sex with just anyone. You might do well to avoid people in dark suits who ring your doorbell early in the morning with a rabid look in their eyes—and as for the pamphlets people leave at bus stops, well, you just don’t know where they’ve been, memetically speaking.

5. Practice safe sex. Much as in the biological realm, you can prevent not only unwanted conceptions but also thought viruses in two basic ways: abstinence and condoms. Abstinence means something like moving to a monastery, taking a vow of silence, and reading nothing but The Book. Wearing a mental condom is more practical and consists of exercising your skepticism, cynicism, irony, and humor.

6. Gain experience. The memetic virgin, or autodidact, is more likely to produce horrendous doggerel or massive treatises proving that π equals 3 than someone who has had regular memetic intercourse—in this case, an education.

7. Insist on satisfying sex. The memetic equivalent of orgasm is the “Aha!” moment, which occurs when you completely grok a concept or get a joke. If your memetic partners don’t make you say “Aha!” or “Ha ha!” often enough, you might need some new friends, books, TV and radio shows, or other ways to get ideas.

8. Respect people’s boundaries. A safeword is a word used during sex that means, “Stop, right now! I’m not kidding!” In real life, the expression “Too much information!” or “TMI!” often functions as a conversational memetic safeword. Unfortunately, some people have memes that they feel compelled to evangelize at all costs, and they won’t stop when they’re told to. Memetically, this is the equivalent of rape. Avoid memetic rapists, and respect the boundaries that others set, if you want them to respect yours.

9. Have lots of kids. As the world moves from using forests for idea storage to ever more efficient electronic devices, there will cease to be any correspondence between the biosphere’s population problem and the ideosphere. Thus, although it’s not always a good idea in the physical world, in the ideosphere, the more memes (or mind children), the merrier!

Why practice mimetic hygiene? Because, believe it or not, ideas matter, and while there are many areas where one idea is as good as another (e.g., the arts—Coltrane is not “better” than Coldplay in any real sense, just different), in many other areas important to people, one idea can most definitely be worse (e.g., biology). Choosing the better idea is not easy.

But we are not alone. As Hayek said long ago, we rely on more knowledge than we are possibly aware—and we rely on others, even if we don’t know it. How many human beings contributed to the computer on which I’m typing this? A lot—from the people in China who assembled it to the people in Cupertino who designed it to Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, and others who laid the theoretical foundations for computer science. “We” are smarter than “me,” as they say.

And it’s important to be right—when there is a right answer to be had. As human knowledge grows, I speculate that there are more and more areas in which there are right answers. Iron Age religions were built to, among other things, explain the universe, which they did pretty well during the Iron Age but they don’t now.

Which brings me to a new blog called Overcoming Bias. It’s fairly new, but quite good, run under the auspices of the Future of Humanity Institute. Check it out. It’s worth a feed.