A Herd Immunity to Nonsense

Mark Pagel on the internet and our cultural evolution:

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

If you go to that link above, which is something you should do right now, you’ll see evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel sorting through some free-ranging and often contradictory ideas on how the internet is shaping our evolution — or to be more precise, how it has taken the 200,000 year trend toward copying over innovation and thrown it, perhaps, into hyperdrive. If you read one thing today, read Pagel. It’s wonderfully free of polemic, and fantastically interesting. It focuses on the copier vs. innovator divide, and explores whether the incentives to innovate are so low in a hyperconnected world that we’re in deep trouble. 

I’d like to focus on something smaller than that — the “docile” part of Pagel’s equation. If you put together Pagel’s insight with Dan Kahneman’s insight that the true value of teaching critical thinking is not that you keep yourself out of trouble, but you can keep others out of trouble, I think you have an interesting argument for the importance of critical consumption to the survival of our species in a connected world.

How do I mean? In a system where people are purely docile copiers, nonsense spreads as quickly as insight. If you want your system to truly float valuable ideas to the top and let the nonsense sink, people have to do more than share — they have to engage with material, annotate it, note reservations, and in most cases simply share nonsense at a considerably lower rate than insight. They have to be able to spot cognitive bias and flaws in reasoning in the three minutes between when the tweet comes in and when they decide to retweet it (or not). That requires, as Kahneman points out, not so much a set of enlightened creators or leaders, but a culture of skilled critics. 

Again, as I noted in my last post, this is a different way of looking at education — instead of seeing it only about the impact on a student’s ability to do specific work, we are looking at more like we look at vaccination — it’s not only about the individual, but about developing a herd immunity to nonsense — getting our collective critical capacity to the point where the dumb ideas spread less widely than the smart ones. 

To do that, what do you need? A background in quantitative reasoning, critical thinking. A recognition of common biases. Critical reading skills, and a good intuition about authoritative sources. You need, essentially, a broadly rethought liberal arts education…


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