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What Makes An Idea Popular?

January 24, 2011

In my recent piece on James C. Scott’s toweringly excellent The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), I suggested that there are unwritten laws governing the up-take of particular theories.  Laws that have less to do with logic, reason and scientific rigour than they do with our deep psychological needs.

For example, Gibbons’ The History of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) argues that the Roman Empire fell into decline because the Romans lost their sense of civic responsibility and their hunger for military conquest.  This idea that power leads to moral corruption and that moral corruption leads to social decay seems to coincide with a similar pattern of rise and fall that features in the theories of both Giambattista Vico and Ibn Khaldun.

These different works attempt to account for radically different societies and yet they all share a similar underlying narrative.  A narrative of rise and fall that even pops up in places such as The Bible and Plato’s allegory of The Cave.  In my piece, I suggest that the over-arching narrative described by Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed is so powerful that it may come to rival that of Vico and Ibn Khaldun as a source of inspiration for writers and artists (let alone academic historians and political scientists).  My aim with this piece is to delve further into this intuition and try to unpack some of the ideas contained within it.  Does it make sense to talk about selecting theories on the basis of criteria other than truth? Do these other criteria in any way relate to truth?  What are the aesthetics of ideas?  These are some of the questions I will try to address with this piece.

Cover of the Graphic Novel

One of the best books I have read so far this year is David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp (2009).  Beautifully designed and fiercely clever, the novel tells the story of a successful paper architect whose apartment building burns down leaving him homeless as well as divorced and without a job.  Using what money he has left to hop the first bus out of town, Polyp decides to lose himself in a colourful roadside community whose quirks force him to dwell on some of the mistakes he made in his life.  One of the things that the book does beautifully well, is to communicate the impression that Polyp is not only a serious thinker and a clever man but also a man whose ideas and modes of thought are hideously constrained by a set of largely unaddressed psychological issues.  Polyp is a man stewing in the juices of intellectual dishonesty.  One tendency that pops up again and again in Polyp’s thinking is the binary opposition:

  • Raw and Cooked
  • Linear and Plastic
  • Internal and External
  • Factual and Fictional
  • Apollo and Dionysus

In one amusingly telling exchange, we see the desperation in Polyp’s desire to see the world as an opposition between two forces:

‘Duality is rooted in nature: The brain is divided into right and left hemispheres, electrical current is either positive or negative – Our very existence is the result of humans being male and female.  It’s Yin and Yang.

‘I disagree.  Duality is an invention that seems to be true, but only because the examples you cite share superficial similarities that appear to be dualistic because we define them in that way.’

‘Ah!  But it’s one or the other, right?’

‘(sigh) I’ll give you this: There are two kinds of people in the world – Those who break things and those who don’t.’

Because Polyp is a clever man, he allows for the fact that things are more complex in reality than they appear in the first brush-strokes of his speculations.  The more he talks, the more the binary opposition slips away to reveal a sphere of possibility:

Of course I realize that things aren’t so black and white – That in actuality possibilities exist along a continuum between the extremes. (…) It’s just a convenient organizing principle.  By choosing two aspects of a subject that appear to be in opposition, each can be examined in light of the other in order to better illuminate the entire subject. (…) In literature, one can find examples of deliberate exaggeration.  Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, for instance, explores human nature by contrasting the life of a hedonist with that of an ascetic.  In The Cloven Viscount Italo Calvino bisects his character into a “kind” half and a “cruel” half to show the good or ill effects each quality can produce unchecked.

Polyp is not alone in favouring the binary opposition.  We all use it.  All the time.  But if we know that reality is more complex than a binary opposition might suggest, why do we still find ourselves returning again and again to that particular pattern of thought?


Frame Grab

In Afterword: Towards an Ethic of Discussion (1991), Jacques Derrida argues that binary opposition is a symptom of Western thought, a value-laden and ethnocentric filter the West applies to the world in order to create a superficial impression of order.  In Asterios Polyp, Polyp’s fondness for the binary is revealed to be a result of his discovery late in life that he had an identical twin brother who died at birth.  Painfully aware of this phantom ‘other him’, Polyp bends and twists his perceptions of the world to fit with the image of two oppositional but perfectly balances sides.

However, these attempted explanations seem either overly reductive (do we all have phantom twins?) or overly conspiratorial (why does binary opposition keep the Brother man down better than a Freudian triad?) to be all that convincing.  Philosophers have long tried to grapple with the problem of selecting between different competing theories.



The bones of the problem can be found in what is known as the Quine-Duhem thesis.  Quine-Duhem relates to the way in which theory is radically under-determined by data.  What this means is that scientific theories seldom limit themselves to providing mathematical models that allow scientists to make meaningful predictions about the world.  Most scientific theories contain these models but they also contain a lot of speculation about the nature of the world that is supposed to explain the data.  But as the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine argues in his groundbreaking paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), for any given phenomenon, there will be a number of conflicting theories that can account equally well for the scientific data.  They will all make all the same predictions.  They will map all the same the data equally well.  All that will change is the theoretical infrastructure explaining the data.  The example that Quine gives of underdetermination involves some explorers going out into the field with a native guide.  As a rabbit hops past, the guide shouts out “Gavagai!” and points at the rabbit.  So what does “Gavagai” actually mean?  Given the data, it is impossible to know with any great certainty.  The natives could be shouting out ‘Lo, a rabbit!’ or ‘Look!  Food!’ or ‘An earthly emanation of the great god Gavagai!’ or even ‘There’s going to be a storm’.  Because the data does not allow us to select between the various different theories, we should really refrain from adopting any particular theory but we never do.  Instead, we adopt a set of intellectual criteria that are not directly concerned with the data as it is.

Epistemologically, these are myths on the same footing with physical objects and gods, neither better nor worse except for differences in the degree to which they expedite our dealings with sense experience From a Logical Point of View Page 45

There is nothing here that would flummox a real scientist.  Scientists tend to be agnostic about the non-observable entities they posit theories about.  Most scientists do not believe that there are things in the world called atoms; they simply talk about atoms because doing so allows them to get a handle on the data and to generate useful hypotheses.  They are pragmatic about their adoption of theories.  Quine follows the scientists in suggesting that this secondary set of empirical criteria be primarily pragmatic in nature. As he puts it, man is given a scientific (theoretical) heritage and a barrage of sense data and it is up to us to warp this theoretical heritage in such a way as to best expedite the handling of the new sense data.  In other words, the important thing is not the theoretical baggage we have, but our willingness to make sure that the theoretical baggage continues to fit with what we know to be the case.  This idea that our theories are not only quite distinct from the data but exist as a kind of vast intellectual heritage is reminiscent of the nature of human thought outlined in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) according to which paradigms of human understanding continue to exist despite scientific data to the contrary.  As new data emerges, we patch up and twist our theoretical baggage until eventually we are forced to chuck out our old theories like an over-repaired coat and buy a new one that better handles the new data.


Thomas Kuhn

The problem is that we cannot effectively select for truth.  We know how to generate mathematical models but we also want to step beyond the data and explain what is going on in the world.  We want to be able to step beyond the data because stepping beyond the data is how we make sense of it and by making sense of the data we are able to generate more effective mathematical models and make more accurate predictions.  We need to guess.


In a paper entitled “Deduction, Induction, and Hypothesis” (1878), the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce distinguished between three different sorts of reasoning:


All Crows are Black

The Bird is a Crow

Therefore, This Bird is Black


These Birds are Black

These Birds are Crows

Therefore, All Crows are Black


All Crows are Black

This bird is Black

Therefore, This Bird is a Crow

Pierce originally referred to this last form of reasoning as ‘guessing’ but over the years it has become known as abductive reasoning or Inference to the Best Explanation.  Though less well understood than inductive or deductive thinking, abductive reasoning is by far and away the most frequently used mode of reasoning about the world.  We guess at stuff all the time.  Now, philosophers and logicians (particularly those involved in the development of Artificial Intelligence) have worked long and hard to come up with a formal system governing the process of abduction using Bayes’ theorem and other kinds of statistical techniques but for the purposes of this piece, what interests me is in the name itself: Inference to the Best Explanation.


William of Ockham

The question begs itself – what constitutes the best explanation of a given phenomenon?  The obvious answer is that the correct explanation is the best one but we cannot invoke truth in this situation because correctness is the destination rather than the means of intellectual transport.  Indeed, if we could detect the correct explanation and ‘see’ the true causal processes behind every phenomenon then we would not need to ‘infer’ the best explanation, we would simply perceive it.  One example of an alternative set of intellectual criteria being used to transport us towards truth is Ockham’s Razor:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praetor necessitate.

Or, to put it another way:

Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.

According to the Razor, one way of choosing between competing theories is to select for simplicity.  But why should this be?  The most widely known – and cited – reason for the utility of Ockham’s principle of parsimony is that simpler theories are more elegant than complex theories and so one’s theoretical infrastructure should never invoke the existence of more objects than is strictly necessary to do the job of explaining a phenomenon.  Some philosophers have attempted to ground this principle by unpacking it using more substantial and rigorous terms.  For example, Karl Popper argued that simpler theories are better because, by virtue of their simplicity, they are necessarily more general and contain less caveats and qualifications.  Therefore, simpler theories apply to more things and so can be more easily tested.  But this seems to simply recast the question of a theory’s intuitive appeal as a question of its empirical scope, begging the questions a) how do we choose what is and is not a theory’s required level of empirical scope and b) how do we choose between theories which, because of their subject matter, are by their very nature of reduced empirical scope?  The philosopher Elliott Sober best captured the dilemma when he pointed out that appeals to simplicity are meaningless unless the theory’s context provides us with a rigorous and objective conception of simplicity.

And thus the conceptual analysis of philosophy leads us in a neat little circle.  We know that we select theories on the basis of non-rational criteria.  We know that this selection obeys principles.  We know that these principles seem to lack a non-rational basis.



Part of the problem is that we are effectively dealing in theories that operate on the margins of verifiability.  Physics, the benchmark of human knowledge, works because it happily limits itself to the purely empirical.  Physicists generate mathematical models that predict the outcome of real-world events but that is because physics and the hard sciences do generate enough data to allow the sort of pragmatic feedback-loop that Kuhn describes.  Most of our theories are effectively evidence-resistant. They are what Karl Popper would have called unfalsifiable.  Logical Positivists, such as A. J. Ayer, took falsifiability (the capacity of a statement to be proved false by new evidence) to be the basis of meaning.  In his most famous work, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ayer argued that any statement whose truth or falsity could not be empirically established was effectively meaningless babble.

For we shall maintain that no statement which refers to a ‘reality’ transcending the limits of all possible sense-experience can possibly have any literal significance; from which it must follow that the labours of those who have striven to describe such a reality have all been devoted to the production of nonsense. – Page 14


Book Cover


In my piece about The Art of Not Being Governed, I argued that the book’s real power lay not in its analysis of the politics and culture of Zomia, but in the intuitive appeal of its over-arching intellectual narrative.  Robert Harrison makes a similar case for the appeal of Vico’s theories in his book Forests: The Shadows of Civilization (1992):

Like many theories that have aged, Vico’s too becomes a fable in retrospect, but since psychic origins are in any case never factual but fabulous, the New Science offers the sort of imaginative insight that makes its theory irrevocable, even long after it has become a fable.  Indeed, it is precisely as a fable that it provides its most essential insights. – Page 3

For Harrison, the power of Vico’s theories owes very little to their factual accuracy, their empirical empirical adequacy or any means of relating their content to the world itself.  Harrison speaks not of ‘truth’ but of “insight” and not of the “factual” but the “fabulous”.  By making these distinctions, Harrison is hinting at the existence of a secondary form of theoretical currency that is only tangentially related to the objective truth sought by the pragmatic scientists and their philosophical shield maidens.  This secondary theoretical currency could be called ‘Understanding’ and it is, as I suggested in my piece about Marilynne Robinson’s shoddily argued Absence of Mind (2010) the true currency of art, poetry and most literary scholarship.  Harrison’s fables have little to do with truth… they are beautiful nonsense.  They are castles in the air built for their beauty alone.  They are ideas that no longer relate to the world but whose power and beauty still make us want to look at them.  Engage with them.  Love them.  As sad as it may be, most theories held by humanity are not adopted because they are true, or because they are empirically adequate, or because they are the best thinking on a particular subject at a particular time.  They are adopted because, like all art, they speak to our deep psychological needs.



One attempt to account for how ideas get wedged in our heads comes from the field known as Memetics.  Growing out of chapter in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976), Memetics is an attempt to account for cultural developments in the same way as biology uses genes to account for biological developments:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.  If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students.  He mentions it in his articles and his lectures.  If an idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.  – Page 192

What constitutes a “good idea” depends upon the psychological make-up of the host brain.  Some people will have physiological propensities for feeling in certain ways and will open themselves up to memes that allow them to feel that way more often.  Some people will live in cultures that do not tolerate certain kinds of behaviour and so, in order to make life easier for them, the brain will close up upon contact with the memes associated with that form of behaviour.  This vision of a fully mature History of Ideas that operates as a kind of conceptual epidemiology was pre-empted by the American philosopher Arthur Oncken Lovejoy who once produced a book entitled The Great Chain of Being: A Study of a History of an Idea (1936).  This book described the evolution of the concept that all of being exists in a rigid hierarchy flowing from God all the way down to mineral matter.  Lovejoy accounted for the spread of this idea in terms of what he called Unit Ideas.  Much like Dawkins’ memes, Levi-Strauss’s mythemes and the lexemes and morphemes of the structural linguists, Lovejoy’s Unit Ideas allow for the fact that humans are seldom seeking truth from their choice of theories.  They seek comfort.  They seek community.  They seek self-justification.  The Art of Not Being Governed is a book built around a weapons-grade meme as its analysis of the relationship between an oppressive civilisation and a fleet-footed anarchist hinterland is intensely romantic and intensely well adapted to a cultural environment that stresses the importance of individuality and autonomy over collectivism and conformity.

Truth is only ever a tiny part of the explanation as to why any belief finds an audience.

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