Outsiders

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.

4 thoughts on “Outsiders”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    We don’t know reality, only our perceptions; everything we (individually and in communities) deal with is just a model. The more accurately the model describes reality, the more effective decisions based on the model can be. Major disruptions (including self-inflicted ones) aside, a model that’s stable enough to work with*, yet adaptable enough to deal with changes likely within the span of one or a few lifetimes, will tend to be most successful.

    * A model that incorporates a constant readiness for change would imply a meta-model on top of it. The feedback needed to encourage/reward that would be too disconnected from the actions required to support it. So there’s a point beyond which adaptability is self-limiting, and a degree of conservatism is actually useful. Not to mention keeping the model from going runaway in a direction that turns out not to be useful. We’ve tried; but IMO as an example, a constitution should be _amended_ according to its own rules, rather than left open to the chaos of reinterpreting it without going to the intentional difficulty of amending it.

  2. John Prigent says:

    I suspect that groups of any kind tend to be resistant to change because those seen as their leaders are ‘doing very nicely, thank you’ with things as they are. Those people see no need to change what suits them and thus oppose change. This is also recognisable in the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

  3. Joe says:

    It is a bit of a paradox.

    Ideas that survive a long time, are probably useful, and will survive for a long time. Fads come and go. Nicholas Taleb calls this the “Lindy effect”. That explains why being conservative has a certain wisdom to it.

    The strength of science is simply to make the environment more toxic for bad ideas (Falsification / Karl Popper).

    The culture that discards bad ideas the fastest without becoming closed to good ones will probably outcompete the others.

    However, because it costs so much time and effort to master an idea, people’s egos and status get entwined in them. (Science advances one funeral at a time).

    It seems therefore that embodying such a culture and caring about status are incompatible. Since caring about status seems to be inherited, people would have to master a culture that goes against their instincts.

    AIs wouldn’t face that difficulty.

    Perhaps Elon Musk’s neural lace cyber-cortices will help us be less stupid in this regard.

  4. Alan Naylor says:

    As our fine friend the author has noted, not all change is good. I think that many times change has shown itself to be bad. I can think of many times this has been the case. Sometimes people oppose change simply for the sake of not liking things that are different. Sometimes because what they have works quite well. Other times people can see that the change is not the right one to make and the consequences will be poor.

    Society is rarely fast enough to respond to any changes made in time to realize that the change was good or bad before it is entirely too late for some of the effects to fall into play. A friend of mine who is a math teacher and is forced to teach common core mathematics is an example. She is very concerned about the future education and ability of her students after being taught common core math. She acknowledges that there are valuable skills that can be taught and learned using common core but that effects are wasted on the majority of students through overcomplication of relatively simple mathematical concepts. She fears that the end result, one which can’t be seen for years, is one in which the children who are by then adults will be unable to grasp college level mathematics.

    From my own perspective I think that people like to toot change as necessary when it is often not required. Instead we are changing society or methodology to support the lowest common denominator of any situation with an effect of weakening society. Be it by making safety standards so stringent that no thought is required when going about daily activities or because we reward everyone with a trophy so that no one feels left out.

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