The Marketplace of Ideas
Just because an idea is dominant doesn’t mean it’s the best.
Many people in democratic countries like to believe that everything gets an equal chance. There’s a “marketplace of ideas” where things compete until one rises above the others. There are a few problems with that concept.
The first is the mistaken belief that all ideas placed in the marketplace are neutral, with the pros and cons made available for everyone to understand. There is also a belief that all individuals are competent and rational, fully understanding the choices before them.
We like to think that every idea gets equal attention. The reality is that people with money or connections can get their ideas in front of more people. Slick advertising campaigns can make bad ideas seem brilliant, drowning out better options.
Look at the arrangement of a supermarket shelf. Items are not placed according to what’s best for the buyer; they're placed according to what’s most profitable for the seller. Some brands pay extra for prominent placement at eye level or to be featured on endcaps. You might think you picked a particular item because it was the best choice. Yet, there were dozens of behind-the-scenes decisions made by brand managers, advertisers and retail marketers that made your choice much more likely than the alternatives.
The second problem is that a marketplace isn’t how scientific progress works. You don’t get to vote on which facts you’d like to accept. When evidence is ignored, facts do ultimately win. But millions can die before evidence and results dictate actions.
Take the case of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss. In 1847 he came up with the idea that “cadaverous particles” could cause disease. Dr. Semmelweis suggested that doctors disinfect their hands with chlorinated lime solution before seeing patients. When he instituted the practice, it dramatically reduced how many children died in the maternity clinic.
There was a problem. Germs had not yet been discovered, and doctors ignored Semmelweis’ suggestions because doctors felt like Semmelweis was blaming them for the infections.
Those doctors WERE responsible. Those doctors WERE causing the infections and deaths of their patients. But they ignored the facts and continued killing people for another two decades until evidence from other scientists became overwhelming. The “marketplace” suppressed the best idea, and the results were tragic.
It’s not easy getting to the truth, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Visit our page on Critical Thinking for advice on how to ASK BETTER QUESTIONS.
You can learn more about the Marketplace of Ideas in the following videos.
The Marketplace of Ideas: A Critique
How the marketplace of ideas went rogue | Eli Pariser | Big Think
Understanding Publication Bias in Research | Neil O-Connell
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