Harry Callahan: “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one”
A reflection on the Value of Ideas
In 1847 Hungarian-born physician Ignaz Semmelweis, while working at an obstetrics clinic in Vienna, discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics,
Dr. Semmelweis was disturbed by the fact that fatal childbed (or “puerperal”) fever occurred significantly more frequently in women who were assisted by medical students, compared with those who were assisted by midwives. Through meticulous examination of clinical practices, he discovered that medical students who assisted in childbirth often did so after performing autopsies on patients who had died from sepsis (of bacterial origin). After instituting a strict policy of hand-washing with a chlorinated antiseptic solution, mortality rates dropped by 10 to 20-fold within 3 months, demonstrating that transfer of disease could be significantly reduced by this simple hygienic practice (History of Hand Washing: Ignaz Semmelweis)
Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his idea was rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory. In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died, ironically, of septicemia at age 47. (Ignaz Semmelweis, Wikipedia)
A simple idea like doctors washing their hands before touching their patients can have immense value, as long as we value people’s lives. Our society is quite aware of the value of ideas. We have developed sophisticated means to help us preserve and spread them, notably through writing and education. Governments and incumbent power in general are especially aware of the potential of ideas. They fight to preserve the ones that support them and eliminate the ones that create opposition, killing if necessary their intellectual enemies. I would not consider it frivolous to say that many people have died for and due to their ideas. But if ideas are so valuable, why do we know so little about them. Why don’t we know how much an idea is worth?
Knowledge, rivalry and increasing returns to scale
Economists have long acknowledged the fundamental value of ideas, but to a large extent they have failed to reflect it into a coherent economic framework. Before the middle of the 1970s economists could give a mathematical description of an entire economy only if they assumed that markets were characterized by perfect competition, a dress which does not suit ideas very well because ideas have a subtle property: one person’s use of an idea does not prevent another person from using it at the same time. They are non-expendable or, as economists say, non-rival:
He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me” (Thomas Jefferson)
Moreover ideas are only partially excludable, meaning that it is not easy for an agent to prevent other agents from using an idea once it is disclosed. The only effective way to do it is to keep the idea secret. These properties imply that production possibilities are characterized by increasing returns to scale, something which has profound implications for economic growth, but makes the mathematical treatment more complicated.
The first serious attempt to incorporate ideas (technology) as a fundamental part of an economic growth model is Paul Romer’s Endogenous Theory:
Growth in this model is driven by technological change that arises from intentional investment decisions made by profit-maximizing agents. The distinguishing feature of a technology as an input is that it is neither a conventional good nor a public good; it is a non-rival, partially excludable good. Because of the non-convexity introduced by a non-rival good, price taking competition cannot be supported. Instead the equilibrium is one with monopolistic competition. (Paul Romer, “Endogenous Technological Change”)
However, mainstream economic theory has yet to provide a simple abstract model that shows how disembodied ideas –ideas that are free from any connection with a piece of equipment– can affect production, growth and wealth (Paul Romer, “Idea Gaps and Object Gaps in Economic Development”).
Well outside the mainstream, a couple of papers by Ola Olson circa 2000 present an interesting attempt to bridge the gap between knowledge formation in growth theory and epistemological thought. In “Knowledge as a Set in Idea Space“, Olson presents a model of knowledge, seen as a set of ideas defined in a multidimensional metric idea space. Knowledge would be created through convex combinations of older ideas and through paradigm shifts. Unfortunately this original “idea” seems to have been mostly neglected.
Obviousness, novelty, utility and context
When trying to define what a valuable idea is, an idea worth protecting, technology, economy and law have settled on a very controversial but interesting idea itself: patents. A patent is the exclusive right granted to an inventor for a limited period of time in exchange for the public disclosure of his or her invention. Patents are granted to ideas which, belonging to a certain set of patentable subjects, are novel, non-obvious and useful. Let me focus first on obviousness and utility
- An obvious idea is one easily discovered, seen or understood
- A useful idea is one capable of being put to use, a productive one
Everyone generates, recalls and holds many ideas every single day, maybe dozens or hundreds, maybe even more. Most of those ideas are the pure result of the moment, of their context, ideas which would be and will be effortlessly generated by everyone, every time the same environmental or inner contextual conditions are repeated, because they are basically the result of our basic nature and our acquired background. These are obvious ideas.
It is important to stress that obviousness is both dependent on the context and the personal background. Something obvious for someone living in the Antarctic may not be immediately obvious to someone who has always lived in a desert. Something obvious for an engineer may not be immediately obvious to a poet and vice versa.
With context I want to refer to all the circumstances in which an idea appears, specifically all the external environmental and historical circumstances that concur when an idea appears for the first time or it is recalled. With background I refer to a person’s training, knowledge or experience which will act as a kind of intellectual scaffolding for new ideas. If we think of what background is made of, it is of ideas. Whether an idea is obvious or not, depends in particular on the previously more or less well established ideas that a brain lodges. To that extent, we might also consider background as context, a sort of internal context, which is basically what empiricists like John Locke or David Hume put forward. Without trying to enter into the philosophical debate, I prefer to keep the distinction between context and background from a purely practical explanatory purpose.
A combination of exceptional circumstances and background can contribute to the production of exceptional ideas; ideas with a low probability, either because the circumstances that conjure them are very rare, or because they are intrinsically improbable to generate given our nature and/or the current state of knowledge, training, etc. Serendipity (Fleming’s discovery of penicillin) and genius (Newton’s Law of gravitation) are the two main sources or non obvious ideas. Exceptional context, either casual (penicilim, contaminant mould on a Staphylococus plate culture) or actively researched (Higg’s Bossom, Large Hadron Collider), is more apparent in discoveries while exceptional background is more related to pure genius. Serendipity seems to lie between both or be a spicy combination of both.
Obviousness and novelty are highly correlated. Whether an idea is novel or not depends exclusively on whether someone else came up with that idea before. Something non obvious the first time can result absolutely obvious once it is known (Biz Stone said recently that “all good ideas are simple in retrospect”), even more so if it is something that our senses can fully grasp. The wheel or using fire to cook might not have been easy to discover, but once initially created and used they became obvious. On the other hand, there seems to be always less-obvious ideas. I believe pure non-obviousness is intrinsically related to difficulty, and for us something is more difficult the more far removed from our basic senses (here I am fully in line with empiricists), and the worse it is the intellectual scaffolding available (think of the difficulty to understand calculus using Leibniz’s notation versus following Newton’s reasoning in his Principia)
Many obvious ideas have probably an intrinsic value. Even at the most basic level, most of our everyday actions seem to be the result of consciously held ideas: I have to get up, I have to dress myself, I have to go out and get to my office. I have to buy bread, etc. Our simplest and more routine behaviours are the result of conscious planning and execution. Many of those routines are executed in a semi-automatic, semi-unconscious way, but we maintain enough control of them, as to assert that they are based on and the result from ideas. On a more sophisticated level, there are obvious ideas that guide our general behaviour, our plans, and eventually our lives. I will call these ideas bread and butter ideas.
Many other obvious ideas are probably completely useless, nearly random thoughts that qualify as ideas according to my own definition, but that are completely ephemeral: how beautiful is that girl that I subsequently completely forget; what a boring film I saw yesterday, or even more inconsequential or stupid ideas that I am pretty sure you can imagine or put forward yourself. These are completely useless ideas. In the film “The Dead Pool”, the protagonist Harry Callahan says: “Well, opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one“. I will call obvious useless ideas, asshole ideas, after Harry’s witty observation.
Being non obvious does not guarantee immediate success, either. Most non obvious ideas might be of little or no value at all, intrinsically improbable stupid ideas. Dumb laws provide some good examples for this category: for example, it is said that it is illegal to hunt camels in the state of Arizona, while camels are not native to North America. Non obvious, non useful ideas can be the result of a troubled mind, obsolescence (which is probably the case of the Arizona’s hunting camels law) or perhaps they are simply ideas whose time has not come yet. Non obvious, non valuable ideas, like the hunting camel law, are definitely weird ideas.
From time to time non-obvious ideas are path breaking. They can open completely new ways of doing things, solve previously unsolvable problems, and transform the way we live, creating net wealth and well-being. Many scientific and technological ideas provide good examples of this kind of idea: Newton’s laws of movement, Einstein’s relativity theory, Darwin’s evolution theory, penicillin, etc. But not only science and technology give us very valuable ideas. There are perhaps even more valuable ideas: the idea of freedom and many other basic human rights, the foundational laws of our society, like democracy or the rule of law. I think that most of these ideas that belong to our present stock of ideas, were most likely non obvious hundreds or thousands of years ago. The fact that they have lasted so long and are so pervasive is undoubtedly due to their value.
In exactly the same way that obviousness, utility depends also critically on the circumstances that surround ideas, on context in its broadest possible sense. Although it seems extremely improbable, we cannot preclude the possibility that a Neanderthal many years ago came up with Mendel’s insights on genetics or the idea of universal gravitation. If that was the case, that poor visionary Neanderthal, either threw their idea away or was considered an awkward idiot. Every idea has its own moment to ingrain and prosper. Many valuable ideas might have been lost, maybe forever, because they were born in the wrong moment, and today there might be around many ideas like Bengal Tigers: under a clear risk of extinction but maybe worth preserving.
The importance of context for the generation of new ideas helps explain why some inventions are often discovered by several people simultaneously. Some authors go as far as to put all the credit for invention and novel ideas in the circumstances: new ideas are often in the air:
(…) surveys of hundreds of significant new technologies show that almost all of them are invented simultaneously or nearly simultaneously by two or more teams working independently of each other. Invention appears in significant part to be social, not an individual, phenomenon. Inventors build on the work of those who came before, and new ideas are often either “in the air” or result from changes in market demand or the availability of new or cheaper starting materials (Mark Lemley, “The Myth of the sole inventor”)
Putting all the emphasis on context neglects the value of genius, and of course, not everybody agrees.
How ideas create value
If the value of an idea is ultimately related to its capability to create wealth and wellbeing, measuring the value of a given idea would depend on identifying all the properties, materials, resources, and eventually the happiness, wealth and prosperity it has contributed to create or will create in the future. It should come as no surprise that no one had ever attempted to do that, not even the most daring bean counter.
However, the difficulty to attribute a value to ideas stretches far beyond the technical limitations to properly measure wealth and well-being (United Nations, Inclusive Report). Ideas are ill-defined objects, with potential long-term consequences. Useful ideas will last longer than us and sometimes longer than whole civilizations. It is simply not possible to prospect or foresee so far as it would be necessary to estimate their economic value. Moreover, even the most durable and stable ideas morph continuously as they materialize, have consequences and spread. They are cumulative. They mix and breed, split and adopt multiple variations. Ideas are absolutely malleable entities which escape our capability to pin them on a board to be classified and properly analysed the way an entomologist does with insects. Let’s have a look in turn at these difficulties.
At first sight, ideas can be good or bad. They can have positive or negative value. They can create or destroy wealth, increase or decrease well-being. Antibiotics seem a positive idea. Murder seems a bad one. However, most ideas are likely neutral. They can have both positive and negative consequences. Antibiotics are a kind of murderer. Murder might sometimes be the only possible way to remove a greater evil, be it bugs, corrupted power, oppression, etc. On the other hand, the extensive use (and abuse) of antibiotics might eventually favour the development of super bugs, bacteria resistant to every known treatment, and able to ignite a pandemic without precedent. All the steps we take, either positive or negative, can have further potential consequences which we will be unable to anticipate, much less quantify. Perhaps ideas are more like keys that open doors to vast new rooms where there are all sorts of good and bad things. Perhaps, they have no intrinsic value after all.
Many people assume implicitly or explicitly that ideas have value only as long as they are feasible and they can be transformed into real applications, things that we can touch or enjoy. That is probably the result of the large influence that technology and technological innovation have currently in our society, and the prime we put on material value; but I think it is a very restrictive view of an idea’s value. Many ideas have an immediate effect as long as they move us to think, behave and act in a given way or direction. Consider for example the idea of punishment and specifically the idea of death penalty. It works because it is feasible, even plausible, but its value is not related to its realization. On the contrary, if it’s valuable at all, it is because we believe it can become a reality which because we don’t like it, we shall try to avoid it. Mutually assured destruction is a similar idea in military strategy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would effectively result in the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. The implicit menace of the use of mass destruction weapons is a way to threaten enemies in order to prevent their use of similar weapons. Hell is probably the mother of this kind of ideas.
In fact, many influential ideas belong to the realm of Chimeras (or monsters). They are unfeasible, or completely impossible, yet they have a strong influence on human lives and history. God stands out as one of the most influential ideas along history. How many sacrifices, wars, but also artworks or altruism in the name of God or religion! It would not be easy to argue whether the net value of the idea of God is positive or negative, but most likely the net value is huge. Yet that value has nothing to do with the real existence of God or his/her capability to materialize, that value derives from the sole idea of God. Something quite similar happens with some economic and political ideas. Take for example communism. The idea of central planning for a large economy has never been fully attained, but all the attempts to do it have produced poverty and deaths counted by millions. Rule of law or free markets are also unattainable in full ideas, but they lie at the foundation of most modern democracies and economies, and therefore must be at least partially responsible for a significant fraction of our current wealth (or its lack thereof). These are all examples of non realizable ideas, which far from being innocuous have immense value.
What ideas need is machinery where they may reside and through which they can influence actions, a host where they may exercise and develop their potentiality. Ideas in books or in any other recording/preserving material are ideas in vitro. Like a virus which needs a cell to exercise its influence (metabolism) and reproduce, ideas can be preserved in a frozen inactive state, but they need a brain(2) to unfold their potential. Therefore, the value of an idea will be proportional to its general reach, the number of brains it has infected or will infect in the future.
Reach and durability
There is a continuum of reach which ranges from nobody (an idea forgotten in an old book) to human kind and –why not– even beyond:
An idea able to make exclusively one person happy, may be a valuable idea for that person, but its value will be likely very limited. In fact, chances are that the idea will be considered foolish, and the person who enjoys it insane. Regardless of its foolishness, an idea which is not able to migrate to more than one or a small circle of brains, will not survive beyond typically a human life span, at most 50 or 100 years, and it will necessarily have a very limited impact.
Useful ideas will tend to proliferate within a given collective and last longer. In principle, the more useful an idea is, the more durable it will be, extending its reach through generations, thanks to observation, education, training, propaganda and all possible means of transmission. Therefore we may accept that the value of an idea is somehow related to its durability. Durability and reach (number of infected brains) are closely related or correlated (see figure below), but they are not exactly the same. As population grows, every idea has a larger potential number of brains to reach, and if we measure value as aggregated wealth or well-being, its potential is also clearly larger, but the average (per capita) value its more closely related to its time span. A long-lasting idea, like murder or democracy, would be clearly more valuable that the idea of sagging for example, even if future population decreased sharply and the total number of “saggers” became a majority in history.
When a non-obvious idea is recognized of immediate utility, it will easily propagate and it will become preserved through the available recording and transmission media. Non-obvious ideas of dubious or not immediate utility will always be under a clear risk of extinction. They will eventually extinguish themselves, although not always. Sometimes there are people, perhaps a small number of connoisseurs secretly convinced of their value, or simply motivated by their beauty, who will want to look after a weird idea and carefully relay its “Jeffersonian” flame from brain to brain.
Imagine that you know about the existence of a hidden treasure, which for whatever the reason you could not or did not want to take possession of. You would want to make your heirs know about it. If for the same reason, they were not able to take possession of it, they will pass the secret on to the next generations. The transmission chain will get interrupted only if the reproductive chain gets interrupted. So, as happens with biological diversity, the durability of an idea is very much related to the preservation of the local conditions –the context– that makes the idea useful, and to the minimum number of specimens needed to keep it alive.
That kind of ideas does not appear only in literature or adventure films. Bengal Tiger ideas are the kind of ideas that populate poetry, philosophy or even mathematics. And they must confer some kind of evolutionary advantage because the vast majority of societies, even the most repressive, have always allowed for a certain degree of idea conservationism; otherwise poets, philosophers and mathematicians would have had an even tougher time they have usually had. Open, permissive societies should be able to carry more non-obvious ideas, like the weird ideas of the awkward Neanderthal or the idea of hunting camels in Arizona.
(1) The Founder’s Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, Document 12: Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813
(2) An artefact (machine) capable of taking an idea (instructions) and producing some action, not necessarily a biological/human brain
[…] important but stalled ideas have followed a similar pattern. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; […]
[…] He is at the same time talking about ideas, new ideas in particular (he is one of the cofounders of Y Combinator), how they gain support and find their way inside the mindsets which nurture and support them. (And I’ve got the feeling he is close my own view about the importance of ideas and how little we know about them and how they determine what we are and do). […]