The Power of Ideas

The Idea: Ideas have enormous power, since they form the frame of our understanding of the world, inform our beliefs and drive our behaviours. Great ideas are so profound and frame-shaking that they quickly topple many of the things we believe, and transform our worldviews, our values and hence our actions. We need more great ideas, and a deeper understanding of how and when they transform our understanding, our culture, what we do and who we are.

Last night I went to the neighbourhood bookstore, list in hand, looking for 18 books on my “to read” list, most of them suggested by readers, and to do some serendipitous browsing. I went through the politics, cultural studies, and science sections, but most of what I bought I found in the ‘nature’ section. For some reason I was dissatisfied with all the new books on political agendas and misdeeds, on Iraq, on the history of civilization. What I was looking for was new ideas. The most promising book I bought was Bernd Heinrich’s new book The Geese of Beaver Bog, which explains how geese make a living together, how their communities work.

And then it hit me. The Power of Ideas. I’ve long believed that there are no new ideas out there, just new articulations, conceptions, models, all based on what we sense and observe, first-hand, and to a lesser extent what we learn from others. But I’ve realized that our framework for understanding our world is like an inverse pyramid — each idea built on a simpler foundation, and that if you can change one of the foundation ideas in people’s heads, shake the windows and rattle the walls of their understanding, you can cause them to rebuild their entire frame of thinking on that new foundation idea. And since that frame of thinking informs our beliefs and cultural values, and those beliefs and cultural values drive all human behaviours and actions, if you can change one of those elemental, foundation ideas in people’s heads you can do anything.

The best-known case of this happening was the ‘discovery’ by Galileo that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. This discovery, like everything in science, is nothing more than an idea, a conception, a model, a representation of the physical world, interesting and occasionally useful. This model, this representation of reality, was so offensive, so threatening to the centuries-engrained religious dogma of the day that the mere act of expounding this model as a better representation of the physical world than divine creation would bring lifelong imprisonment or even execution. Such is the power of ideas.

Likewise, Darwin’s model of the evolution of all life so threatened the orthodoxy of ideas that to this day, centuries later, religious fanatics remain in denial about its validity, and try to deprive it of its credibility by calling a ‘theory’ rather than ‘truth’. But all science, all philosophy, all politics and economics and religion are just theories, alternative models of varying degrees of correlation with what we know of reality, from which each of us can choose. Politics is nothing more than the art of trying to persuade others that your model, your representation of reality, is more credible than others. Philosophy and religion are the arts of interpreting what an accepted model of reality implies for human values and actions, for those unable to make these connections themselves.

All of the books in my Save the World Reading List present elemental, foundational, frame-toppling ideas. For example:

  • Gaia: The idea that all life on Earth is one self-aware, self-sustaining, self-balancing organism. When I first heard it I was put off by the name, and dismissed the theory as romantic, mystical oversimplification. “You really have to be desperate to believe to buy this stuff”, I wrote to a friend who sent me Lovelock’s book. But the more I learn, the more I study, the more evidence I see in nature, the more this model makes sense. Over the last decade it has gradually become one of a handful of essential ideas that underlie everything I now believe.
  • Overpopulation as the root cause of all human problems. I used to be a technophile, and I was so put off by the embarrassing failure of Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian population doomsday scenarios for the 1990s to emerge, that if you had told me I would come to believe this idea I would have laughed at you. That was until I read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and Story of B, recommended to me by a professional colleague, David Jones in Ottawa. Now I buy this idea without reservation, and I am impatient with well-intentioned world-changers who think we can cure the disease by treating the symptoms instead of the cause.
  • Civilization as a prison separating us from nature our home: A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen’s polemic on human violence and the horrific psychological damage that civilization’s systemic and hierarchical abuse of power inflicts on each one of us, desensitizing us, imprisoning us, brutalizing us into conformity and passivity, is one of the most depressing books ever written. But it is also brilliantly argued, and, like the above two books, completely changed my worldview.
  • Stories are all we are: Thomas Kings’s book The Truth About Stories transformed my fascination with narrative and story-telling (I initially saw it as merely an effective way of articulating the need and opportunity for change in business) into a veneration for the art, and an appreciation that, as individuals, we create and live our own stories, and our culture is nothing more than the stories we share. I now doubt that you can effectively change anyone’s mind in any meaningful way, by replacing one of the foundational ideas on which all their beliefs and actions are based, without telling them a good story.

The most intriguing best-sellers of the past few years, books like The Tipping Point and The Wisdom of Crowds, also feature foundational, profound, essential ideas that change the way we see the world. Each threatens and undermines orthodoxy: The Tipping Point shows us that ideas propagate virally in a way that can be used for brilliant, inexpensive marketing or abused by propagandists, and that great ideas don’t need the backing of wealth and power to infect millions any more than pandemics need a perfect breeding ground of ignorance, bureaucracy and poor hygiene. The Wisdom of Crowds shows us that the best answers come from the masses, not from expensive experts, executives or consultants. These are powerful ideas that could potentially transform the way business is conducted and important information communicated.

Rob Paterson has just written a blog post that suggests that social networking tools could free the people from all the world’s agents, corporations, and bureaucracies, and let us re-communitize our culture, peer-to-peer. I’ll be writing about this idea later this week, but it’s another potentially foundational, frame-shattering, transformative idea. Here are 15 more such ideas, laid out as ‘laws’. This one, by Stephen J. Gould, has become another of my foundational ideas, upon reading his book Full House: If one could rewind the tape of life and let events play out again, the results would almost certainly differ dramatically. Had the major extinction of the dinosaurs occurred earlier or later, for example, or had dinosaurs never evolved, subsequent biotas would have been wholly different, and we almost certainly wouldn’t be here to contemplate nature and meaning.

And these two are specially pertinent, because they are, like this article, ideas about ideas:

Daniel Dennett‘s Law of Needy Readers: On any important topic, we tend to have a rough idea of what we believe to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.
George Lakoff: Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.

What are the implications of all this? If we really want to change someone’s mind, we need to understand not only the frame of the other person, but the foundational ideas that underlie that frame and the way in which that person internalizes information (how they process ideas and ‘learn’). For a new profound idea to supplant an old one, it has to get deep enough to displace another foundational idea, and cause everything on top of it to come crashing to the ground so it can be rebuilt in the listener’s mind. If it merely scratches the surface, the top layers, it will simply not penetrate, not ‘stick’. You can’t convince a conservative that freedom of reproductive choice for women trumps the rights of the unborn by arguing at that high level. You have to get down to the core beliefs and rattle them, the way the founders of civilization did thirty millennia ago when they suggested that people could live better by staying in one place and cultivating crops instead of hunting and gathering; the way the founders of Christianity, Judaism and Islam did two millennia ago when they challenged animist and pantheistic beliefs; the way Galileo and the scientists of the middle ages did in turn; the way the industrial revolutionists did when they suggested that since energy and work were the same thing, maybe it made sense to have machines do things instead of people.

I’ve concluded two things as a result of my own thoughts about ideas: First, I’m going to try to put forth more foundational, profound, essential ideas in this blog. I’ve always prided myself on idea transfer, the ability to take an idea from one domain of knowledge or human endeavor and transplant it effectively into a completely new domain where it can take root and flourish. I don’t exercise that skill nearly enough on this blog, and I will undertake to provide more ‘original’ (transplanted) ideas and fewer regurgitations of others’ ideas on the pages of How to Save the World. Secondly, I am going to start each article with one or two sentences that convey its essential idea.

Is it possible that ideas are the elements of the much-sought-after universal taxonomy of the blogosphere and of all human knowledge? Are ideas, and not subjects, domains of information, the fundamental building blocks of human thought? If so, why not index everything we write and share according to its idea rather than its subject (now there’s an idea).

We need more profound, foundational, worldview-shaking, transformational ideas, and we need them now. But just as important, we need better mechanisms to understand how people come to accept, and sometimes change, the idea frameworks that inform our beliefs and values, and hence drive our behaviours and actions. And we need to understand what it is that causes us to supplant one idea with another, in a way that fundamentally changes the way we see the world — in other words, how we learn, and why we don’t.

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14 Responses to The Power of Ideas

  1. “Stories are all we are”In my personal world view, I’ve come to define human beings as those who tell stories. But this is probably only because I haven’t broken the code of the stories told to me by my pets, the birds that sing outside my door, the wind in the trees and the patter of rain.

  2. baxter says:

    putting peyote in processed foods would shatter the foundations and l.s.d in the water supply would cause the walls to come tumbling down producing the transformation your talking about in my opinion. just an idea though

  3. lugon says:

    What we do with “ideas” is called “thinking”. I believe that, in a neuronal level, an idea is just a number of neurons firing up at the same time. Different patterns of neurons would mean different ideas. (Just imagine a grid of lightbulbs, some of them on create a message.)Thing is, when we “think”, an idea leads to the other. Much as what happens when you ask someone “2+2=”, their brain has the “2+2=” idea which leads to “4” idea. Same with songs you know. So “thinking” would be “sequences of ideas”. When you learn, that sequence is “facilitated”. That’s what I believe anyway.If “thinking” is the connection from one idea to the other (“you’re a female so you drive badly”, etc), then that’s what we want to change. More often than not, we “remember” (go through old pathways) and we don’t “think”. Thinking would be fresh perception. Thinking tools are said to have just that effect, so we may bypass our own memory and “really look at things” (whatever that may mean in our case).Alternatively, we can try on different glasses. Please explore further.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Lugon: Thinking is just very sophisticated information processing. Ideas are building blocks of this processing, but so are sensations, beliefs and decisions. Probably the dominant type of thinking we do is deciding ‘what to do next’, when the ideas that underlie those decisions we’re probably not even conscious of. At that point we’re processing alternatives, rather than ideas.

  5. Jenny says:

    Dave, I currently suffer from a surfeit of infomation and need more time to ponder your post at length, but I wanted to thow out the idea of images as a means of getting “to get deep enough to displace another foundational idea.” Images are of course one aspect of the frame construct, but they also circumvent the cognitive process to touch our most basic selves in ways that word never can. Ask any advertising exec, or Karl Rove. I’m not attempting to reduce the argument, but wanted to throw something into the mix. Thanks

  6. Jim says:

    Hey Dave, this weekend I got a chance to catch a bunch of movies at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., where I live. One of the documentaries that might interest you was The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a film about Mark Bittner, the guy who cared for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Stunning footage of the birds and gardens, and Mark Bittner speaks to a lot of the issues you address in your blogging, both in what he says and in how he lives.

  7. Joe Deely says:

    Dave,Good article. Thought provoking.

  8. Avi Solomon says:

    Dave,In this regard reccomend that you read the chapter ‘Education-The Greatest Resource’ in E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’Keep up the good work!

  9. David Pratt says:

    Dave,I think your direction is perfect and that this post is a masterpiece of reason!I’ve been stuck on an idea for almost a month now that complements what you are saying. Unfortunately, in this time my blog has been laying fallow. It seems to me that the “frames” issue can be successfully addressed so that various ways of learning can be accommodated to bring about widespread similarities in perception and action. The process can be done through sensitive study and careful artistic application of teaching and modeling methods as you say. There is a major hurdle though, and it is the one we are facing now. It is the Rove [Bush] strategy of pumping up reactivity (events and images that provoke visceral reactionary responses) so that fear and aggression combine to trump higher awarenesses [frames] and more reasoned responses. Rove has given the more primivistic frames (or primitive dimensions of our own frames) power over us. I know you’ve been writing on this recently and you’ve helped me to understand it. But this is the crux now. It is the major obstical to be overcome or counteracted before we can challenge other “foundational ideas.” OR… perhaps there is a way to shake down reactivity and foundational ideas at the same time?

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Jenny: Excellent point. I think that’s the magic of stories — they create an image in our mind’s eye, a very subversive way of ‘planting’ an idea without raising the usual resistance.Jim: Absolutely amazing! Great catch — thanks.Avi: Yes, I’ve read this — he was way ahead of his time.David: Thank you — and it sounds like you’ve got more than enough there for your own blog post. You make a good point that we can be motivated by fear and other strong emotions, not just ideas, in forming our beliefs and deciding our actions. Can we fight emotion with superior ideas? Doubtful, but what a fascinating subject to debate!

  11. an intriguing thing about your post is that is doesn’t mention a concept originally used to describe exactly what you’re talking about – Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift. this hideously overused term does have a a meaning that talks directly to foundation shifts and your rather beautiful inverted pyramid idea. did you avoid it because it is so overused?One frame i am trying to push back on is the Ownership Society. Would it not be better to build a Contribution Society>

  12. To that reading list I’d add Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. Have you read it, Dave?

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    James, Mikhail: Thanks for the additional readings. I’ve read Natural Capitalism but not Ecology of Commerce. And yes, I avoided the ‘p-word’ because it’s so over-used (and mis-used). The Ownership Society is actually brilliant neocon spin, because it ropes in the libertarians. The Contribution Society doesn’t sound as ‘rewarding’, although it’s accurate. How about the Sharing Society or the Cooperating Society?

  14. dave davison says:

    Dave: I think Jenny”s post is right on— there is great communicating power in the use of visuals to “frame” concepts as you are already doing as you provide your blog readers with “High chunk” visual frames to set the context for your stories/ideas.To construct the foundational framework for the transformative ideas (yours and others) that you seek to bring to light, I suggest a close collaboration with visual designers and graphic facilitators who could help all of us gain insight to the way we need to think in order to Save the World.To quote you from your April 2004 blog: ” if you want to change the world, either (a) use technology to end-run cultural resistance, or (b) drive the change through self-organized communities, and undermine the hierarchies.” I think we need to do both – and the big idea of “citizen journalism”-based on the power of the blogosphere-provides “the rest of us” with the tools we need to incubate and bring to vitality and action the important new and transforming foundational ideas you are helping to articulate. To have maximum impact I believethese ideas must have a strong visual component.I am working on a project to help integrate the power of visualization in democratizing the use of New Media technologies as you suggest above, and would consider it a great privilege to bring our work to your attention if you are interested in learning more.Please contact me at the above email address if you would like more details.

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