Recently, I’ve run across a number of articles, including some of the scholarly variety, which address the issue of “false news.” Several of them have made the points that so-called human “rationality” evolved to facilitate cooperation, not necessarily rational analyses of facts, and that the majority of human beings will accept “false news” that facilitates their inclusion in their belief group and reject verified facts that are in conflict with group beliefs.
If this is so, and from what I’ve observed, it seems to be for large groups of people, it gives rise to another question: How have human beings ever managed to evolve and develop a technological society?
The first response that came to my mind was: That’s why progress has been so slow and spotty, because you need consensus for a new way to become part of society.
One of the corollaries to this is that groups that more easily accept new and better changes will be able – still cooperatively – to outcompete groups or societies that don’t. And history tends to show that this is in fact true. When the Chinese culture essentially and gradually closed itself off to outside influences, symbolized by the government decree to destroy all ocean going ships in 1525 A.D., that marked the beginning of the long, slow, and inexorable decline of China, ending with the effective destruction of the “traditional” culture in the early twentieth century.
As I’ve noted in various previous blogs, a great number of more “modern” inventions, including the mechanical computer embodied in the antikithera mechanism, were actually developed and forgotten hundreds if not thousands of years before some society finally adopted them. Some were discarded because they were seen as uneconomic, others because people didn’t want to change existing ways of doing things, but what’s often overlooked is that economic factors aren’t entirely “rational,” but also part of a belief structure.
Some twenty-five years ago, my wife pointed out to an executive in the retail clothing world that there was a growing number of older women with money and taste who wanted professional and tasteful clothing not designed for twenty and thirty-year olds. The executive told her that there was no market for such clothing. I now know of several large retail firms making hundreds of millions, if not billions, from that market… but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the group-belief in the clothing industry was that there was no market.
That’s where outsiders come in. They’re the people who are at least marginally part of society but who really aren’t part of a group, the ones who can set aside non-functional group “beliefs” and come up with changes.
Being an inside outsider can be dangerous, particularly in areas of belief. Many of the first theologians who started the movement that became the Reformation, like Jan Hus, ended up being executed. Although Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift in 1915, he was ignored and ridiculed for more than fifty years before conclusive evidence vindicated him.
But even inside outsiders can be trapped by believers, because, if they’re successful, they tend to attract a group of people who either share the same beliefs, or profess to share those beliefs, and, in time, that reduces the former outsider’s objectivity. Companies started by outsiders, such as Microsoft, Apple, or even Walmart, often have this problem after a while. One of Edison’s great advantages was that, for the most part, but not always, he relied on what he could prove or disprove, an attitude that often goes against group beliefs.
The problem, of course, is that for every outsider with a good idea, there are a dozen with bad ideas [which is often why they’re outsiders]. The fact that bad new ideas always outnumber good new ideas may also be why stable societies tend to be conservative. It’s also, I suspect, why when a society incorporates too much change too quickly the results are almost always disastrous, or close to it. Yet, without change, cultures stagnate and collapse… or are taken over or conquered by other cultures.
All of this is why I’m speculating, and it’s only a speculation, that societal/cultural success depends over the long run on the successful use and management of “outsiders” and their ideas.