A colleague and friend once lamented that "An idea, however demonstrable its validity, never gains any currency unless it acquires a powerful champion." (Les Lilliman, 1998)
How can good ideas be recognized and supported? Must they have explicit champions to succeed? And, conversely, how can bad ideas be kept from fooling people? And who decides what's good and what's bad? Courts of law, especially when dealing with complex technical issues, have long struggled with these problems.
One hope might be that a "free market" in ideas could separate wheat from chaff. This has often worked well, in the long run at least. But when pernicious notions have great short-term profits associated with them, selfish pseudo-experts and promoters fly out of the woodwork in search of personal gain. Even more dangerous, when bad ideas have irreversible consequences it can be tragic to let them go unchallenged. Numerous examples from medical quackery come to mind; so do destructive political systems like Nazism and Communism.
But what are the alternatives to purely natural selection of ideas? Panels of authorities can help at times, though they tend to oppose valid new developments out of inertia and conservatism. A skeptical attitude on the part of every individual is excellent. But raw doubt must be tempered with open-mindedness in the light of evidence, and none of us have enough time to investigate everything. What other ways are there to filter out bad ideas from good?
Sunday, July 04, 1999 at 15:21:39 (EDT) = Datetag19990704