In a recent comment, one of our bloggers wrote,
It’s only … ordinary people (or maybe idealist/purists who have too
much time on their hands) [who] believe in the fairy tale that just because an idea
or a product is valid, it would ultimately prevail and stand on its own in the
What further can be from the truth ….
With the exception of really simple cases (e.g. 1+1=2), the life of an idea will
always be the inter-play of the validity of the idea and its delivery form.
Anyone who disputes either factor is illusional.
I think there is a kernel of truth to this.
In the book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Health argued that ideas often gain traction in a society (i.e. “stick”) not because they are true, or important, or socially worthwhile, but simply because how they are gift wrapped.
Ideas “stick” when they possess one or more of six attributes: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-containing. This explains why “urban legends” can spread like wild fire even after people find out they are not true.
A recent NY TIMES piece titled Your Brain Lies to You (see Recommended Readings to the right) describes how we may actually be biologically wired to store misinformation. According to article,
The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.
This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.
With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength.
This can be all kind of troubling.
Many of us on this board staunchly believe in the power of the freedom of speech. But given the above, how can we be sure that in a free marketplace of ideas, good ideas will be accurately disseminated?
More importantly, if it’s true that the best products do not always win out in a free marketplace of products (e.g., apple v. ibm/microsoft), how can we be sure that the best idea will win out in a free marketplace of ideas?
What does this all mean for the freedom of speech?