Think about the last time you listened to a lecture. Asked later about the ideas presented by the lecturer, what would you answer? Would you quote the best, most truthful ideas presented in the lecture, or would you talk instead about whatever happened to have been communicated the most effectively or stuck with you for some other, perhaps more idiosyncratic reason?
At least about myself I can say, and not without a feeling of shame, that I tend to share ideas that got stuck in my head because they sounded exciting or were conveyed via a compelling, colorful story. Yet does the emotional impact, associative strength, or narrative packaging of an idea prove its truth and substantial value?
The problem with the much-celebrated “marketplace of ideas” is that an idea’s competitiveness in the market is unlikely to stem from its epistemic worth. Rather, ideas get shared, spread, and populate the market by virtue of qualities that are highly reflective of our human cognitive biases.
We are inclined to speak more of ideas that are simple, that elicit strong emotions, and that lend themselves well to storytelling than of ideas that are complex and nuanced. The latter’s chances of succeeding in the marketplace are relatively small because memorability is predominantly linked to affective impact, not epistemic content, and the more easily we can memorize an idea, the more likely we are to retell it.
Take the idea of nuance, for example. The abstract idea itself enjoys great popularity because it is easy to remember. However, actually nuanced ideas are ironically disfavored by the market because they are much harder to losslessly memorize and turn into a compelling story.
Then again… the marketplace of ideas is quite similar to the marketplace of goods and services. Most of the stuff I can purchase may be crap, but I am still happy that people are free to sell and advertise as they please. It is on me to be a thoughtful consumer of goods. Likewise, it is on me to be a thoughtful consumer of ideas, no matter how much crap there may be even among the memetically most successful ideas.