I typically don’t post about current events, but I heard a bit during Lex Fridman’s podcast with Tim Urban (the Author of Wait But Why) that felt very relevant. It’s not about a specific current event, but the state of today’s society.
Tim’s thought starts with all societies, modern and historical, and the need for ‘idea arrows‘ as a way to treat new ideas. Bad ideas get shot down by idea arrows and good ideas withstand the arrows and rise to the top.
Example of a bad idea: Let people drive drunk.
Idea arrow: Drunk people are X times more likely to get into an accident and will kill a lot of innocent people.
Good shot, you popped the idea balloon!
Societies need ideas that withstand the idea arrows to continue advancing. His ideal society is one of an Idea Lab – where arrows are constantly being fired, discussions are being had, and the smartest ideas are winning out. This seems intuitive.
Then he brings up the idea of sacred texts. These are ideas that become so unequivocally accepted by society that eventually arrows aren’t allowed to be fired at them at all (think Galileo saying the earth isn’t the center of the Universe). This creates what we all know as an Echo Chamber. Tim posits When something like this happens, the collective society becomes dumber, perhaps dumber than even a single reasoning person. The inability to shoot arrows, to disagree, to come up with new ideas, to suggest the earth isn’t the center, inhibits a society.
In relation to today’s society, he sees sacred texts and echo chambers on the rise. He cites Climate Change and Covid (government mandates, vaccines, behavior, etc.) as two examples of sacred texts and social media perpetuates the echo chambers.
And it’s not just that these are on the rise, but that they’re in places that are be meant for the full exchange of ideas, like universities and science journals. That’s where our societies idea labs have historically been found, but now they’re flipping to echo chambers.
So the concern is this:
If you throw an idea lab person into an echo chamber, they’re either silenced until they conform, or they’re kicked out of the group. A society that functions like that will worship their sacred texts until Galileo comes along.
I wanted to write this post without mentioning Rogan, but for the sake of the clicks, let’s imagine that his highly controversial pods about Covid are idea arrows (I didn’t listen to them). If the ideas they’re shooting arrows at are ‘good’ (or the arrows are dull), then the arrows should fail to pop the ideas, and the ideas should continue rise.
The counter argument may be something like “in the minds of his audience, the arrows DID shoot the idea down even though it was a good idea! He’s just too influential and they’re just too stupid to realize!” This would suggest that his audience is living in their own echo chamber, which could be true.
Tim and Lex would probably say society will always have people who don’t believe in the good ideas, or prop up the bad ones, but we should have enough faith in our fellow humans to allow them to keep firing arrows. Something that I generally agree with.