Intellectual indoor plumbing and toxic ideas that spread like wildfire

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Glenn Reynolds has been reading James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, and he notes how fragile early civilizations were:

A bunch of people and their animals would crowd together in a city, and diseases that weren’t much of a threat when everybody was spread out hunting and gathering would suddenly spread like wildfire and depopulate the town almost overnight.

As Scott writes, an early city was more like a refugee resettlement camp than a modern urban area. He observes that “the pioneers who created this historically novel ecology could not possibly have known the disease vectors they were inadvertently unleashing.”

Then I ran across this observation on Twitter: “The Internet is rewiring brains and social relations. Could it be producing a civilizational nervous breakdown?” And I saw another article noting that depression in teens skyrocketed between 2010 and 2015, as smartphones took over. It made me wonder if we’re in the same boat as the neolithic cities, only for what you might call viruses of the mind: Toxic ideas that spread like wildfire.


Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

It took three things to help control the spread of disease in cities: sanitation, acclimation and better nutrition.


We don’t know much about the spread of ideas, or what would constitute the equivalent of intellectual indoor plumbing. (Censorship isn’t enough, as it often just promotes the spread of bad ideas that people in power like). Over time we’ll learn more. Maybe we’ll come up with something like the germ theory of disease for ideas.

And perhaps people will acclimate. Twitter is still new, and amplifies crazy opinions. People may learn to spend less time on social media or to avoid them altogether. (In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, the elites of the future consume their news on paper, and send each other handwritten notes; electronic communication is for the plebes.) But that will take time.

Where we can do something right away is with the equivalent of nutrition. Traditional training in critical thinking — the sort of thing the humanities used to revolve around, before they became focused on “social justice” — seems like it would be a useful protective. A skepticism regarding groupthink, ad hominem arguments and virtue signaling would likely offer considerable protection against the sort of mass hysteria we seem increasingly vulnerable to. Likewise, a social consensus on important ideas — the kinds of things we used to teach in civics classes — would help.

The Diamond Age is definitely one of those novels that stuck with me. (Dune is another.)

Arnold Kling points out that this ties in nicely with the recent talk between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt, where they discuss how the sense of disgust evolved to protect people not just from disease:

We tend to feel an instinctive disgust toward groups with customs and manners that differ from our own. If you can overcome this instinct to feel disgust when you are around foreigners, then you can benefit from their ideas and culture. But you increase somewhat your risk of contracting disease. Peterson describes Adolf Hitler as operating on the theory that having Jews or Gypsies in a population was like having rats in a factory. He was so concerned about the disease that might be spread by such creatures that he wanted them eradicated.

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