Demanding Too Much of Unconventional Wisdom

We place very high demands on wisdom, ideas, or advice that bucks convention.  There is certainly some logic behind this, in that ideas widely held might be more likely to be useful, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular.  Yet usefulness, longevity, and popularity certainly do not equal validity or truth.  An idea may be widely adopted because it is useful in making one less of a pariah, even if it is in fact false, or even evil.  The belief that bloodletting was the best cure for many illnesses was common.  So were beliefs in the necessity of slavery.

In other words, I think the logic that common ideas are more likely to be correct is only one small part of our reason for being less demanding of them compared to uncommon ideas.  Our desire to imitate others and be perceived as “normal” (even, sometimes, normal in misery) also drives us to demand far more of unconventional ideas than conventional ones.

One of the more popular demands made of unconventional ideas is that the believer in them must be rich, happy, and super successful.  If some unconventional idea about how to succeed in life is true, it goes, those who espouse it had better be rich and famous or else their lives are living testimony to the falsehood of their ideas.  Let’s just take an absurd example.  If you heard someone claim that planting all your dollar bills in the ground would cause them to grow into money trees you’d immediately look to see if this person was rich.  If not, you’d be ready to mock and dismiss the idea.

The unconventional idea of burying dollars in the ground is stupid for a lot of good reasons that are easy to discover.  But to argue against it because the person espousing it is not himself rich is not a very good reason or a sound approach.  Why not?  Let’s look at what would happen if we used the same standard to analyze conventional ideas.

It is widely accepted that eating healthy foods leads to a better life.  It’s common wisdom.  Again, whatever other good and bad arguments can be made to demonstrate the truth of this knowledge, one poor approach would be to demand that everyone making the claim themselves be fit and healthy.  If an overweight person claims that a healthy diet low in sugar is a key to health, most of us (wisely) do not dismiss it simply because the person does not exemplify the outcome they claim is likely.

There are several good reasons to not demand that the bearers of truth themselves exemplify it in order for us to believe.  Knowing and doing are two different things.  I may know full well that shooting 100 free throws a day will make me a good free throw shooter.  But I may not value free-throw percentages enough to make the necessary sacrifices to implement this bit of wisdom, even if I espouse it.  In addition to not having an intense enough desire to implement the idea given the costs involved, I may also have an upward limit on my own improvement.  No matter how many free-throws I shoot, I’m probably not going to be as good a shooter as Stephan Curry.  If I had lost both my arms in an accident, my free-throw shooting ability might be zero, yet that makes the piece of knowledge I hold about practice making one better no less true.

We overlook potentially powerful and valuable ideas when we dismiss (or accept) them based entirely on the lives lived by those who espouse them.  This is a poor standard of proof that would destroy all conventional wisdom if we applied it equally.  The life of the preacher doesn’t necessarily prove or disprove the validity of the sermon.  We’ve got to do more work and examine ideas for their logical validity, experimental validity in a wide variety of situations, and most of all their applicability and usefulness to our own lives.