The cult of ideas

By Francisco Dao , written on February 19, 2013

From The News Desk

Next week many people in the technology industry will make their annual pilgrimage to TED in order to bask in the edification of “Ideas worth spreading.” Many in the audience will claim to be in awe, while thousands more will follow along at home or eagerly await the release of the video clips so they too can be part of the new enlightenment. But something has gone terribly wrong with this larger group of people who constitute the cult of ideas. While they claim an intellectual high ground, they’ve actually become blinded by the ideas they seek to embrace.

My criticism isn’t specifically directed at TED, and it doesn’t apply to everyone who attends, but TED is at the center of a larger constellation of followers and events that populate the cult of ideas. The problem with this group is that many of them are characterized not by a healthy desire to learn, but rather an unhealthy desire to believe.

The difference between wanting to learn and wanting to believe is not trivial. Learning includes a large component of critical thinking, of questioning and, if possible, testing hypotheses. In contrast, there is no critical thinking component in wanting to believe. Wanting to believe is essentially an emotional push for faith in whatever you’re being told.

I call it a cult and not a culture because the desire to believe causes critical blindness in much the same way extremely religious people often have difficulty seeing the merits of other religions. In the case of the cult of ideas, they have a dogmatic devotion to the new and novel. But what is new or novel is not necessarily correct or above questioning. This is where the belief system of the cult of ideas has become as blind as every other cult before them. They’ve taken a position of, "if you don't believe in these new messages, you're not enlightened” which is exactly the same as all religious dogma.

Practitioners of the cult of ideas will dismiss anyone who dares to question them as an ignorant non-believer. For example, any time I’ve questioned anything about Burning Man I’ve been attacked and accused of being close-minded. Shouldn’t a culture that is supposed to be based on open mindedness be open to questioning? It should be, but I can’t tell you the number of people who have accused me of ignorance and even launched personal attacks against me for simply pointing out inconsistencies.

Even assuming the new ideas have been carefully tested and curated, the desire to believe makes people vulnerable to lies and misinformation. TED does a pretty good job of selecting their speakers, but it’s not perfect, and it’s also one of the top conferences in the space. As you slide down the scale to less discerning “idea” events, the complete willingness to believe becomes even more problematic. Ultimately, being willing to believe anything new and exciting is every bit as dangerous as being closed to new ideas. One appears to be aligned with learning, but in reality they both lead to ignorance because of their lack of critical thinking.

For many members of the cult of ideas it has essentially become their religion. People use it as a way to self-identify the type of person they are. On the surface, it seems better to believe in new ideas as opposed to old ideas. But new and old have little, if any, correlation to correct and incorrect. The problem with those who blindly follow either is their unwillingness or inability to question their beliefs. In this regard, the cult of ideas has no greater claim to clarity or intellectual superiority than anyone else.

Unless you’re paying close attention, the shift from wanting to learn and wanting to believe is almost imperceptible. It often happens the moment we put someone on stage or when the crowd reaches a certain size. As humans, we are naturally inclined to respect authority and look for social proof. But while the shift may be hard to notice, it marks the difference between learning new ideas and being blinded by them.

[NOTE: Some of you may accuse me of being hypocritical since I run a private community. For what it’s worth, we hold no speaking sessions, and I do everything I can to screen out people who show a lack of critical thinking.]

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman forPandodaily]