How to Spot Bad Ideas and Keep Your Sanity
I’ve been there. A few years ago I was halfway through university, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I was an OK student, I’d do 90% of my studying during exam season — meaning I would loiter around most of the time.
I was left to my own devices — nobody telling me what to do, what how to do it, what to say and where to be. So I did what a lot people would do with no direction: I mindlessly browsed Youtube. I saw a video with a crazy title which went something like this; ‘WHAT THE ELITES DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW’. I took the bait.
Soon I was down the rabbit-hole, starting with videos on how ‘The rich keep the masses poor’ and finishing on ‘The human race is controlled by reptillians’. Fortunately, I’ve always been inclined to think scientifically, so I was able to pull myself out. But in the moments I was consuming conspiracy theories, I was almost engrossed and totally plugged in.
But I had a scary realisation — if I was not scientifically literate, would I have fallen for this? The answer is probably not what I want it to be.
If I learned something from watching intellectual garbage, it’s ways to smell it and prevent myself falling in:
I. Bad Ideas Require Olympic Level Mental Gymnastics
For the sake of argument, let’s consider a hilariously infamous conspiracy theory: That the world is run by shapeshifting lizard people (reptillians) from space.
If you challenge most people who believe this by asking a question such as ‘Where’s the proof?’ They’ll quip back that the reptillians are very clever and that they’ve manipulated human society through the media and education system so much that there is literally no proof.
The theory is circular, it proves its own point.
Lets look at another conspiracy: COVID-19 was planned/fake
In the US there have been reports of people refusing to believe Coronavirus exists while they are literally dying from it. While the causes of such mass delusion can be debated for days, there’s no doubt that bad ideas are still sprouting in our modern, technologically advanced world.
One way to dismantle this bogus belief is to examine the ideas it rests on, one of them being:
If the pandemic is fake, then that would mean millions of people — doctors, scientists, politicians, academics, large business owners etc. are acting out a massive lie perfectly.
Considering that so many people being ‘in on the act — isn’t it amazing how nobody has slipped up and revealed that the pandemic is actually a plan-demic?
Always remember — bad ideas themselves rely on many bad assumptions. Challenge the assumptions and the whole house falls.
II. Bad Ideas Make Sweeping Generalisations from a Tiny Sample Size
‘He’s muslim, so he’s probably violent’, ‘She supports Trump, probably a moron’, ‘He works as a cashier, probably not bright’. We’ve all heard variations on these, and thinking like this are essential ingredients of bad ideas. At most there are only tiny truths in stereotypes and generalisations, and generalisations don’t get you far in life.
A bad idea will consider a small sample size and inflate the characteristics of that sample to cover every case of it.
A basic tool to protect yourself from this is by simply asking how often you’ve seen something before you start forming judgements in your head, same goes for whatever someone else is trying to get you to believe.
III. Bad Ideas Make Everything Seem Black and White
Some examples of the above include:
‘The rich always oppress the poor.’
‘The only reason people of colour don’t succeed is racism.’
‘My country is great, that country is the worst.’
‘Context doesn’t matter, if it’s wrong it’s wrong.’
There are some grains of truth is all of these views, but they all suffer from a major flaw, they’re rigid and have no grey areas.
But life is full of grey areas, in fact most of life is a grey area. Rarely are things so clear cut that we can easily call them good or bad.
But a harmful ideology will certainly try to divide the universe into discrete chunks which you cannot, at all costs, cross.
IV. Bad Ideas Usually Protect those Spouting Them
The catholic church was responsible for suppressing a large number of scientific ideas. We’ll never know the gems of knowledge the world was prevented from seeing. A common justification was that the church would be the gatekeepers of knowledge, why? Because ‘it’s their god-given duty’.
In the Stalinist Soviet Union, people caught criticising the regime would end up in jail or dead, why? Because the ‘communist party is central to keeping the state prosperous’ and anyone who disagrees is an enemy of the people.
If you wanted to fool a lot of people but didn’t want to deal with naysayers, an effective tactic is to give yourself immunity thats justified by the very ideas you put out.
Theres a reason why archaic religions, authoritarian governments and abusive relationships last so long — they justify themselves to the ones committing the fraud.
Be Skeptical, but Not Concluded
As with most ideologies, you’re better off being skeptical. However, you have to balance this with an open mind.
‘Skepticism keeps you from being fooled, closed-mindedness keeps you from growing’
You don’t know the value of your own ideas unless you compare them to the ones out there in the World. If you find those that make sense and help you live a better life, use them to replace the irrelevant old ones.
Sense-making is one of the best tools we have to be better people, and to be a better human means to have the right ideas. Having the right ideas means being able to tell which ones are bad.