There are two types of ideas which appear very similar yet behave very differently and the ability to distingush can be very useful. Legitimate ideas are not neccesarily ideas that are right but their distinguishing factor is that they have an adequate response to all developed criticism. That means one of the hallmark properties of a legitimate idea is that if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed. What’s more, the mere attempt at trying to demolish it looks foolish and woefully ignorant. If a legitimate idea is demolished, it’ll be demolished from the top, by the people who are most intimately familiar with it. Evolution, I believe is a legitimate idea. All attempts to debunk evolution merely reveal the debunker’s lack of understanding of evolution.

Cargo cult ideas are those which have all the outward trappings of a legitimate idea but without the social process that causes those trappings. It survives not because it can survive criticism, but because it carefully prevents legitimate criticism from affecting it. Cargo cult ideas can survive for a surprisingly long time despite the presence of arguments against it because their very survival involves aping legitimate ideas so closely that it can use the same refrain: “if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed”. Cargo cult ideas are undermined from the bottom up rather that from the top down as it involves a loss of faith in the system.

The structure of argument is so different between legitimate and cargo cult ideas that it becomes impossible to argue unless both people are on the same side. You can see this tension play out with the atheist vs Christian arguments where atheists take the side that Religion is a cargo cult idea masquarading as a legitimate one. Christians on the other hand feel safe dismissing atheist arguments because well, even though they personally don’t know the rebuttal to the argument, they’re sure some learned Christian scholar surely does. Why, this athiest simply doesn’t understand the full subtlety and intricacy of the Christian position and all they are doing is revealing their ignorance of it.

How do you distinguish between the two? There are some useful zero knowledge proofs but they’re tricky because ultimately, the goal of a cargo cult idea is to become indistinguishable. I think in order to do so, you need to learn enough about a subject to reach the cliff. The cliff is the point where a simple question, well stated will be rebuffed rather than answered. No good answer will be forthcoming. The problem with this is twofold: It’s impossible to assert that no answer can be found unless you’ve read all of the literature on the problem and it’s impossible to ever assert the cliff does not exist unless you reach the end of the field. Neither of these are practical goals so only probabilistic measures are possible.


Responses

  1. Zach Hale says:

    January 8th, 2009 at 8:54 pm (#)

    Well done on an extremely lucid contrast of the two types of ideas.

    It drives me crazy that your solution for how to distinguish between the two is that it’s impossible. Even if someone were to “reach the cliff”, for any cargo cult idea of significance one man’s assertions would be quickly covered up by those who have lived their lives in support of the false idea.

    You mention “only probabilistic measures are possible” but I a having a hard time conceptualizing for what sort of circumstances you could argue disproving the cargo cult idea is “possible”. Or maybe you just mean possible on a one-on-one basis.

    How frustrating.

    Do you have other examples of good cargo cult ideas that exist similarly to the atheist vs. christian argument?

  2. Zach Hale says:

    January 8th, 2009 at 12:54 pm (#)

    Well done on an extremely lucid contrast of the two types of ideas.

    It drives me crazy that your solution for how to distinguish between the two is that it’s impossible. Even if someone were to “reach the cliff”, for any cargo cult idea of significance one man’s assertions would be quickly covered up by those who have lived their lives in support of the false idea.

    You mention “only probabilistic measures are possible” but I a having a hard time conceptualizing for what sort of circumstances you could argue disproving the cargo cult idea is “possible”. Or maybe you just mean possible on a one-on-one basis.

    How frustrating.

    Do you have other examples of good cargo cult ideas that exist similarly to the atheist vs. christian argument?

  3. Hang says:

    January 10th, 2009 at 4:14 pm (#)

    Hi Zach,

    This is in my sketches blog which means it’s still a work in progress…

    It’s impossible to distinguish the two with an absolute degree of certainty but it’s often fairly easy to get 90% of the way there. It’s impossible to ever ascertain certainty because simply disproving one version of an idea doesn’t mean there doesn’t exist a more sophisticated version which is immune to your disproof and proving that your idea survives an argument doesn’t mean there’s a more sophisticated argument that punctures it.

    I’m going to expand on this piece in a little bit…

  4. Hang says:

    January 10th, 2009 at 8:14 am (#)

    Hi Zach,

    This is in my sketches blog which means it’s still a work in progress…

    It’s impossible to distinguish the two with an absolute degree of certainty but it’s often fairly easy to get 90% of the way there. It’s impossible to ever ascertain certainty because simply disproving one version of an idea doesn’t mean there doesn’t exist a more sophisticated version which is immune to your disproof and proving that your idea survives an argument doesn’t mean there’s a more sophisticated argument that punctures it.

    I’m going to expand on this piece in a little bit…

  5. Ross Lee Graham, PhD says:

    September 4th, 2011 at 9:35 pm (#)

    I hope this comment gets in the right comment list…
    This notion of idea into two categories does not hold up. Phlogiston is well-known as a flawed concept and yet from it was generated the concept of calories and calory counting. Furthermore, to say “All attempts to debunk evolution merely reveal the debunker’s lack of understanding of evolution,” begs the question. It makes me think that you are unaware of the many problems that are not answered by what you seem to think is a unified theory of evolution. It would place you in the same tribe as those who said Lamarck’s theory of evolution had fatal flaws in it and yet in today’s research these so-called flaws are being re-examined since there is apparent evidence that there are cases where learned abilities are inherited. It is true that this still stands as an unproven hypothesis, but maybe you do not know that at the foundations of science the only power we have is to show that some generality fails. That is to say that science has more power to disprove than to prove an hypothesis. You can read Hume. William James, Popper, on this assertion. I taught evolution theory at University for 6 years and I still keep up with the subject. It has long been known that the theory that Darwin stole from Wallace has flaws that have yet to be answered. Therefore, to talk about a theory of evolution as if there is only one well-established theory reminds me of a religious evangelist and shows a lack of maturity of judgment on this subject. I suggest you begin by reading Arnold C. Brackman’s book: ‘A Delicate Arrangement’.  Should you wish further recommendations, just ask…
    Best regards

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