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?
Well, I don’t know, maybe you can’t really. It all depend on what you mean by good idea. Take example of computers: I use Linux, because my tastes is defined by my experiences. I believe that Linux is the best. Why? I like the command-line, I life the Unix philosphy, etc.
So when windoze has the largest market share (lol, did you guys see the new MS commercial?) is it because it’s idea is the best in terms of providing the best of “something” (I’ve no idea what it is) to it’s “market.” Define best and idea. In this case, I think the good “idea” of Linux has not be accurately disseminated.
But when you start talking about abstractions like good idea, and free marketplace, I’m completely lost. Of course there is my superficial knowledge of markets, the invsible hands, etc. But that’s no help here right?
So you can’t do anything about it. The only thing is to fight upward, to gain better positions yourself. You have to get into the market game. To play on their field. Tis the only logical way.
This brings the point of the cold hard reality. That’s it’s about getting it done! You got to fight dirty to get what you want. Hence my whole beef with elites again. And God, Satan, Satan, God, you know the one…
You got to use whatever means necessary, in order to achieve in this reality of ours. But the way the game is setup, most of us are nothing but sheeple, and will amount to nothing.
Amount to nothing.
Then again, it’s how you define the game. Why should we play their game?
Crazy huh? Product of MKULTRA.
Netizen K says
There are good ideas and there are bad ideas. Good ideas can’t always win because there are promoters of bad ideas. Why do they promote bad ideas? Because they benefit from them.
For example, former US president Eisenhower thought the military-industrial complex was a bad idea because it would ultimately hijacked democracy. But the military-industrial complex thinks itself a good idea to country’s defence. So it stands and prospers from wars.
Now you says it’s a bad idea, but they say it’s a good idea. You know abstraction of good or bad doesn’t work here. It’s a fight for ideas. You have to fight, as some commenter already said.
A hypothetical discussion in an information-controlling and manipulating state like the PRC. Most markets in China are more fallacy than fact, the marketplace of ideas is no different. Heavily manipulated.
Netizen K says
The very idea of “free market” works best should be questioned.
The reason that this idea has been promoted as a fundamentalist faith of capitalism by the UK and US is because they can benefit from such an idea spreading out around the world. They promoted this idea because they had most competitive industries.
Now they are less competitive, they become protectionist. So, free market is a good idea if it benefits me, a bad idea if it benefits my competitor. How do you think about that, Allen?
It doesn’t mean a thing for freedom of speech, but it reinforces my decision to avoid docudramas for fear of mixing fact with fiction in my own brain.
S.K. Cheung says
To Netizen K #6:
S.K. Cheung says
“best idea will win out in a free marketplace of ideas” – I think that’s a very hard question to answer, because how do you arrive at a consensus of which is the “best” idea to begin with?
In some respects, I think it works the other way: the best idea is the one that emerges from this marketplace of ideas as the winner.
Netizen, faith in markets comes from the ability of supply/demand models to accurately explain human behaviour. It works as well in China as it does in any other place on earth.
I take it you’re not a believer. Note, however, that demand and no supply is famine; supply and no demand is waste.
Free market means it’s a market free of government regulations, doesnt mean it’s a fairy market.
Samething with the free media, means it’s not control by goverments, but by other things, could be worse than governments.
They both are neutral terms, cold war made them become sacred beacons of the superioty of western civilizations. Most of the times they do work better, in certain cases, they suck just as bad.
Sure … but what if we expand the concept even broader to not just docudramas?
The arguments for freedom of speech in the West is often couched in the notion that in a free market of ideas (not controlled by the government), the market will discover the best ideas out there. Sure, freedom of speech is messy: some ideas are bound to be from reliable sources, and some from more dubious sources. But a survival of the fittest competition will ensure that the fittest idea survive.
In a democratic society, the freedom of speech is such a sacred foundation because it is when citizens get the opportunity to air out and debate ALL ideas that the truest best ideas can be found, and (through the democratic process) be implemented.
I am just trying to question whether a free market for speech will necessarily ensure the best ideas be found…
That’s surely true. People often sign up to ideologies only when convenient to do so.
The West may be for “freedom” and “democracy” because they have found a particular implementation that works for them. But in reality, it is probably not “freedom” or “democracy” that they care about, but because touting such rhetoric is convenient for them on the geopolitical stage.
But something similar may be so for China, too. A realist may argue that China now touts the “nonintervention” horn because it is convenient. Once it gets more powerful, and once it can go head-to-head with or even beat countries like the U.S. on the geopolitical stage, it may adapt a more aggressive stance in its international policy?
Ok – you are right. When I use the term “best idea” I meant it abstractly. The concept of the freedom of speech is often justified on the ground that it is only by freeing the public to air out various view points that a “best” or nominally “good” idea can be best found….
Interesting idea Allen… (I have a strange sense of humor.)
I’m not sure where you are going with your post. There’s a hint of a direction.
For me, the idea of constructed, even untrustworthy memory is not new, having had an ex-wife that had the uncanny ability to remember things as they really were, despite solid irrefutable evidence to the contrary. So, our memories, the very bricks we use to build our ideas, are suspect. Ideas are suspect.
So, our market place of ideas is a market of inherently damaged goods. Our assessment of damaged ideas is also flawed. Good idea or bad idea, really it would seem that such an assessment is doomed to be messy.
What is the point of bothering with a free marketplace of ideas?
Dismal. I think I will join the pig in his mud, abandon knowledge, and just be happy.
The problem is, and metaphorically I’ve shared his sty, the pig is ugly and mud is mud. And we’re cursed with a brain that knows it.
So let’s go back to the marketplace. A “free” marketplace? I’m not sure what you mean by “free”. I know of no marketplace that doesn’t cost somebody something to participate in. There is always some hurdle to entry. As MoneyBall pointed out, a “free” market generally refers to something that is free from excessive government involvement.
But I can’t help thinking that the marketplace metaphor might not be useful when talking about ideas. When the idea becomes a product, then we can see how it performs in the market.
Ideas are not quite the same as products. I’ll give you my spaghetti ideas for your unravelling for free (well… almost free). Free speech uses a different flavor of free doesn’t it? The different meanings of free also makes the free marketplace metaphor for free speech a bit of a logic error.
Yes. The memory bricks we use to build our ideas are flawed and messy. But it’s a good thing we can always test our ideas with various tools of logic and science… Not that we often do so, but we can and that is still good. So let’s not worry too much about the silliness that happens within our wetware.
What does this all mean for the freedom of speech?
Let’s look at the idea of idea viability a bit more organically. Again, this is not new. The idea of looking at ideas as elements of culture or behavior that are passed on from one person to another like genetic code, or the meme, is not new. But it might be useful when looking at this question of “freedom of speech.”
Evolution is a messy and haphazard system that has worked pretty good so far. It allows a set of genes to adapt to changes in environment. The adaptations don’t need to be perfect, only better than what was. Good or bad adaptations are assessed by survival, not by what seems to be good to an observer.
A healthy genetic population will have a certain amount of diversity. Without that diversity, the population could be quickly devastated by a significant change in environment.
Pulling this back to ideas, an organization needs to have a certain amount of diversity. It is possible to constrain this diversity to the point where the viability of the organization is at risk. We can easily see this in a corporate setting where innovation is stifled. Eventually, the environment for the corporation changes and it dies because it is unable to adapt.
Societies are just the same. If a society discourages diverse ideas, it won’t be able to adapt to the changing world environment. Unrestrained diversity can also be damaging, for example, hate related ideas.
It isn’t so much that the ideas are good or bad. In order for ideas to have a role in a healthy society, society, government as part of society, needs to ensure that idea diversity is maintained.
For me, the question isn’t about “freedom of speech” but is idea diversity at a healthy level. The US is proud of it’s freedom of speech but I’m not so sure they are all that keen in idea diversity. My observation in China is that many many people are looking at diverse ideas and questioning some basic tenets of how things work. But this doesn’t happen in a context of “free speech” but between people.
So… because ideas are messy, we need to have a system that supports a diversity of ideas. Good or bad are meaningless tags. What works will survive.
As for “freedom of speech”… from a legal standpoint, it is good to have some degree of protection for expression. But its effectiveness in supporting a diversity of ideas is not guaranteed. Culture is far more important.
Netizen K says
I think we should separate free speech and free market. They are two different ideas.
Free speech is a political right. It is also useful to expand the pool of ideas.
Free market is exchange mechanism. It’s a way to exchange interests and resources. If you think democracy is a free market, then it helps settle on a final idea from a pool of ideas. Whether it is good or bad is definitely.
Like the electiion of US President George W. Bush, it’s good or bad?
I need to mull that one over…
I think institutional issues also exist – but perhaps you lump that under culture also?
Agreed. But how does one justify the need for free speech? Is the right the end all and be all – or is there a more fundamental justification – such as (what I was trying to say) a free market that ensures “good” (useful, whatever) ideas are found…
The market is geared toward the majority. So you people are the minority. Most likely your ideas will not be the “best” idea.
Whether you like it or not RACE and PREJUDICE and DOMINATE CULTURE play a role in this.
The media is also setup such that one of it’s HIDDEN GOALS is to drive a wedge between different races. In another word, it’s is designed to keep you in CHECK.
That’s what I’m talking about. All the little dicussion don’t mean crap when you realize the game is loaded.
What is the point? You people are lame.
I quit this forum.
Netizen K says
There is no magic bullet to prove free speech is best of all things. There is a reason for that because free speech could lead to demagogury. If there is someone who is good at speech, he can exploit free speech to create prejudices, descriminations and even wars. Think Hilter.
Only when people who have the right of free speech act reasonablely and fairly AND there is mechanism to check them if they act otherwise, then free speech can flourish.
There are those who argue had true freedom of speech been allowed, Hitler would not have been able to rise to power…
But I digress.
I agree with you that only when the right of free speech act is exercised reasonablely and fairly AND and when there is mechanism to check can ideas truly flourish in a free speech environment.
Thanks for your thoughtful response at #15.
Regarding your thought that:
In an ecosystem, a minimum amount diversity of organisms is needed as fodder for natural evolution to function.
Is your idea of speech diversity based on similar concepts? But if human perceptions are so fuzzy and faulty, should the mass intellect be depended to act as the evolutionary guiding force that prunes down and selects the ideas deemed to be workable?
@Allen, “should the mass intellect be depended to act as the evolutionary guiding force that prunes down and selects the ideas deemed to be workable?”
I am sorry, I have always had serious doubt about the will of the masses, we’ve all been fed since eons past the forbidden fruit of misinformation, so to speak, to really know what to do. I think it was in Sunday school I was told that “All we are like sheep who have been led astrayed.” Democracy, is as much a power game the elites play with a section of the masses’ approval as feudalism and authoritarianism…as we say in Chinese “换汤没换药” : The soup may have been changed (to taste better perhaps?) in order to disguise the useless medicine to fool the patients. The name and packaging of the game may have been changed but its the same game.
For example: The doctrine of man playing god reaches its nadir in the philosophy of scientism which makes possible the complete mental, spiritual and physical enslavement of mankind through technologies… [For Francis] Bacon, the defining feature of history was rapidly becoming the rise and growth of science and technology. Where Plato had envisioned a society governed by “philosopher kings,” men who could perceive the “forms” of social justice, Bacon sought a technical elite who would rule in the name of efficiency and technical order. Indeed, Bacon’s purpose in The New Atlantis was to replace the philosopher with the research scientist as the ruler of the utopian future, New Atlantis was a pure technocratic society.
[…]In the context of sociopolitical Utopianism, […]The “special gnosis” of science has provided the means through techne. Mark Pesce, co-inventor of Virtual Reality Modeling Language, […]Commenting upon techne’s role in manipulating matter, Pesce writes: “Each endpoint of techne has an expression in the modern world as a myth of fundamental direction–the mastery of matter. . .” This may, in part, explain the sociopolitical Utopian’s preoccupation with the physical universe. One of its chief constituent components is matter, which can be mastered through the sorcery of science. Again, all the elements of a mystical belief system are present. All that the modern scientific materialists have done is exchange one form of mysticism for another. Technocracy is merely the modern incarnation of occult theocracies like Babylon and Egypt. It is the latest political expression for a system of manipulation through sorcery and alchemy.
In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley defines a “scientific dictatorship” as follows: The older dictators fell because they could never supply their subjects with enough bread, enough circuses, enough miracles, and mysteries. Under a scientific dictatorship, education will really work with the result that most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution. There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
In point of fact, technologies such as satellite and computer surveillance; a state of affairs, in the case of USA, symbolized by the “All Seeing Eye” above the unfinished pyramid on the U.S. one dollar bill. The truncated pyramid mounted by the “All Seeing Eye” represents the blueprint according to which society is being re-sculpted. It is the standard schematic for authoritarian governments, which ride into dominance astride the epistemological imperialism of scientism, [following the rather successful mass feeding of the placebo of “giving up freedom to protect freedom.”] Excerpts from “Nothing Beyond the Flesh: The Theocracy of Prima Materia” – by Phillip D. Collins [my own paraphrasings and emphasis]
Not that it’s a bad thing, but I think I am starting to sound like RMBWhat who Says: That’s what I’m talking about. All the little dicussion don’t mean crap when you realize the game is loaded. 🙂 LOL…
Charles Liu says
Allan, the ways recent Tibet discussions devolving should give you some clue on what happens when it’s too free – majority (often wrong) reigns, noise reigns, chaos reigns. Then the mass is helpless from manipulation, indoctrination, terrany of the few/many.
@Charles Liu – That’s just great, you’ve now found a way in which you can justify denying people freedom of speech. Listen, the tyranny of not having my voice heard over a bunch of media pundits blasting their opinions out over the media is a bit different to the tyranny of being dragged from my bed late at night because I’ve been saying things the government doesn’t like what I’ve been saying. There is no such thing as ‘too much freedom of speech’.
Charles Liu says
Foarp, if you thing this blog has any semblence to the real life, you’re dillusional – was anyone participating in the Tibet thread got dragged out of their bed?
How about those Chinese netters discussion He Kexin’s age? Were any of them dragged out of the bed? A netter joked about “internet spy” in Baidu gynmastics bbs, and it’s reported as “Chinese government censor online discussion”. What’s your take on this?
Thomas Jefferson, father of republicanism, warned us about “tyrrany of the majority”. So you think he’s wrong? There shouldn’t be any limits to freedom, and people are free to do bad things as they please?
Freedom isn’t absolute, that’s a fact. The idea of WMD as justification for Iraq invasion won out in the free market of idea, after the tyrrany of the few saw fit to distort, and free media saw it fit to follow freely – the the mass was indoctinated and misled.
@Charles Liu – You and I both know that people in China can and do get arrested and imprisoned simply for expressing opinions that the Chinese government does not like in public fora. Trying a reductio ad absurdam argument like “well none of us have been arrested”, is simply pathetic. We’re discussing this in English on a medium-traffic pro-China website hosted outside China, none of us is Hu Jia.
Freedom is an absolute – this is why it never completely exists. Justice, equality, democracy – these are all absolutes also, this does not mean we should not strive towards them in our systems of government. Fear of a ‘tyranny of majority’ is no reason to impose a genuine tyranny of the minority, nor are such minorities any less subject to getting things wrong. I’m going to take a wild guess and say you were not in China during the SARS period, when at the same time that on the other side of the world the US government was unveiling its evidence of WMD in Iraq, the Chinese government was still insisting that this potential pandemic was a form of Chlamydia. A free media will expose untruths more often than it falls for them – this has been shown over and over.
I think we all know simply expressing opinions that the Chinese government does not like in public won’t get people arrested. It need more than “simply expressing opinions” to get arrested.
I am not talking about the massive amount of anonymous internet commentators on the mainland websites criticize or abuse CCP all the time. let’s simply have a look at the popular Chinese bloggers like 冉云飞 and 王小峰 you might read all the time. Most of 冉云飞’s articles are anti-CCP as do most of the commentators on his site. Many of 王小峰’s articles criticize the Chinese government. And there are many others if we want to see more.
I am not saying those get arrested should be arrested . I am saying giving a impression of “people get arrested simply because of their opinions” is un true. The vast majority of those who simply expressing opinions that the Chinese government does not like in public don’t get arrested.
Tyranny of the majority is one thing. I don’t see how prohibiting free speech or reigning it in, like Charles Liu seems to propose, would lead to anything than tyranny by a certain majority. And look at the meanderings of a typical Chinese nationalist site, where only certain opinions are allowed. It becomes the same thing.
This kind of reminds me of when someone, every once in a while, demands that the Internet should be controlled for quality.
I am saying giving a impression of “people get arrested simply because of their opinions” is un true.
This I gotta to agree. Otherwise , I usually have no problem FOARP’s comments.
@BMY – Two words: Hu Jia. Not enough? Wu Hao? Still not enough? How about the 762 people arrested under the blanket crime of ‘endangering state security’ in 2007? Were they or were they not arrested in the main simply for the opinions they espoused? People can be arrested in China simply for expressing opinions which the government disagrees with in a public forum, but the CCP chooses to exercise this power arbitrarily only against the most prominent of those who do express such opinions. does not mean that they do not e. You might as well say that watching satellite TV without a license, or selling pirate DVDs, or prostitution, etc. are not illegal in China because so much of it happens. The fact that there are so many pirate DVD stores, unlicensed satellite receivers, and ‘pink’ barbershops does not prove that these things are illegal in China – it merely shows that the government only applies the law as and when it pleases.
Apologies for late night posting on a sleepless night, please ignore the “does not mean that they do not e” bit!
I think there are two issues we are talking about here. On the one hand, when I was talking about a free market of ideas here, I was discussing issues relating to free speech. On the other hand, when Charles writes about a tyranny of the majority, I think he was trying to warn about a danger of majority rule (democracy).
Charles Liu says
Oh pleeeeeze, Forap #33, what about Hu Jia and Wu Hao?
Wu Hao was held under “material witness”, or contempt law similiar to what we have in the West. The police was investigating, and he refused to turn on his interview tape which was material to the criminal investigation. He was released when he turned over the evidence.
And speaking of Hu Jia, do you know who Chi Mak is? Do you know about this US law called “Foreign Agent Registration Act”? In US anyone cooperates with foreign government without registering as a spy is subject to 10 years in jail.
Charles Liu says
Forap, “CCP chooses to exercise this power arbitrarily only against the most prominent”?
I ain’t never heard of Hu Jia. It seems anyone arrested becomes “most prominent” in the West.
Heck, the cult leader Xu Xuanfu of Three Grades of Servants, who ordered hits against rival Eastern Lights was prominently displayed by the US Congress as evidence of repression in China (Int’l Religious Freedom Report, page xix).
S.K. Cheung says
if Charles is worried about the dangers of democracy, perhaps he would feel safer in a different time zone…how about one that’s 13-15 hours ahead of SF time?
Sure. As for the tyranny of the majority, it is a well-known problem. I think solutions lie in extending and changing the democratic system. In the words of Mark Rosenfelder:
“New forms of democratic government will be devised (again, not here; probably in Europe) that prevent the tyranny of the majority.”
The whole piece is worth a read:
One interesting piece from the article I mentioned, about the intellectual climate in the _Western_ world in the 1900s and several decades after that:
“Even democracy, the triumph of 19C (= “19th century”) liberalism, was on the defensive. As William Shirer memorably related, people who believed in democracy in interwar Germany were an embattled and discredited minority; one form or another of absolutism waited in the wings. As late as the ’40s, C.S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity) found it necessary to depict democratic liberalism as merely one alternative for a Christian, beside socialism and fascism.”
“Sure” above (#39) was a comment to Allen in (#35).
The link Charles gave in #37 was interesting, especially where it says
‘“Cults are thriving among those the government has abandoned,” says Kang Xiaoguang, a political scientist at Qinghua University in Beijing. “They provide social services the government no longer does. They give people a sense of belonging,” he said.’
It’s not the first or only cult or religious group that gets popular because it provides services to common people. Hamas and Hizbollah comes to mind.
Also, while the violence is no proof of religious persecution, the fact that the groups are banned are. And if someone brings up Germany’s ban of scientology, I don’t think that’s right either. Groups shouldn’t be banned at all, only actions should.
S.K. Cheung says
“Groups shouldn’t be banned at all, only actions should.” – that’s an interesting point. Never thought of it that way before. Makes a lot of sense, because groups become such owing to shared beliefs, and you can’t realistically legislate belief systems.
Thanks for the great info. Awesome Post.