What is a Bad Idea?

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Principles Series
Last Edit
Apr 3, 2022 01:48 PM
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In yesterday’s piece, I noted that the goal of this column is to surface “good ideas.” But what makes a good idea? Who is to judge an idea after all? And if so, how?
First, we’ll start with a premise: some ideas are better than others. This shouldn’t be controversial – only a rabid postmodernist would disagree. But take an extreme example: it’s unarguably true that the idea “all humans ought have equal rights under the law” is better than “it is okay to enslave people based on the color of their skin.”
Yet the latter idea was held for a long time, and there are many places in the world where the former has still not yet been adopted for all humans, as it should be. Perhaps sadly, even the world’s greatest-ever idea will undoubtedly have a few million detractors. Yet saying “well, it’s subjective” certainly won’t get us anywhere.
If only it could be this easy to pick out the good from the bad!
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So there is one thing we can, likely, all agree on. Which relates it to a quote by statistician George Box, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Ideas serve as models in this framework. As we spoke about previously, any simplification of reality is going to be distorted in some way, but as this notes, some ideas are still obviously useful.
Thus, we could use either a ‘maximize usefulness’ criteria or a ‘minimize distortion’ criteria to evaluate ideas. But these move together (are correlated). If an idea distorts reality too much, it is very likely to be counterproductive, even if it is useful in some other way.
So while not perfect, we’ll define a good idea as this: it’s one that meets the following criteria. An idea should do three things:
  1. Closely model an important aspect of reality
  1. Avoid obviously & meaningfully distorting other parts of reality
  1. Proves useful when it’s applied
If nothing else, an idea that misses on one of these dimensions is at best a useless idea. So this framework works well to see if any idea or framework you see sends up any red flags. Similarly for this column, it’ll serve as a good framework for how we share ideas.