Winning ideas

Historians know the power of narratives. When it comes to the competition of ideas, the best story always wins. It’s always great for ideas to be backed by evidence, but that is not always required. A good story is simply good. Its exigencies lie elsewhere. Its requirements are seldom a function of evidence, data and truth value. How many times do we need to say it, or see it? We embrace ideas for a billion reasons, only one of each is truth, whatever we understand that to be.

I have met people who are allergic to certain ideas. As ideas go, allergies are a priori reactions. The truth value is never sought for an allergic reaction to kick in. We don’t even want to hear about certain views, not because we’ve pondered them, weighed them scientifically, dialectically or whatever, but because they move us in a negative way. Why is that? Often we don’t really care. We are quick to dismiss. We are masters at rejecting out of hand.

And there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. At least as long as we don’t claim that we are proceeding in a rigorous, logic, scientific, data-driven manner. In the marketplace of ideas, some ideas will win and some will lose. Some will lose quickly, only to win slowly, and in the long run. Others win for a while, only to lose forever. Our world, like a victorious general’s battlefield, is made up of winning ideas. But we never, absolutely never, can tell whether the victory is final. That’s why a culture of debate, contestation and deliberation is the best toolkit we’ve built for ourselves. Sadly, there are enough signs that we are allowing weeds to grow in many areas where the pavement should be smooth and conducive to that free movement of the spirit which has the best chance of moving us forward, rather than backwards.

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