Saturday, September 17, 2005

Social Pollution, Politics, and Culture II

How do ideas affect your own health, fitness, financial security, happiness, and general success in life? You knew that the ideas you encounter have an impact on your life, for good or ill. Did you ever wonder how, to measure bad ideas, or good ideas for that matter? Did you ever wonder how you could tell just how bad an idea is for us, and why it is so bad?

Here's a short of social pollution again: ideas that have negative social or personal consequences without overriding social benefits. I focus on ideas but the related behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyle choices also count. The beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors we encounter give us ideas about what to do and think. Social pollution is illogical, counterfactual, or undermines a widely held value. That last thing is a new criterion. We'll be using it in the next couple of posts.

(BTW: Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins referred to the ideas we pass along to others as memes. They are the intellectiual equivalent of genes. You could think of this current series of posts as a discussion of the social and personal consequences of bad memes.)

Consider the analogy of air pollution. Smog is pollution, but you really only experience the consequences of it, throat and eye irritation for example. Social pollution is like that. You may not notice the ideas themselves but you notice the consiequences in beliefs and attitudes that people express. You also experience social pollution in the form of bad choices that people make. This is where social pollution becomes a personal issue.

Obvious question: What counts as a bad choice, belief, idea, or attitude? If I condemn reality television and NASCAR without reason you could easily dismiss me as an intellectual elitist. And you'd be correct to do so. Defining social pollution is a process of defning what is "bad" in some way that we can (mostly) agree is valid and useful. Such a measuring scheme can be created!

We can measure the badness of ideas, their status as social pollution, by reference to widely held values. I'll describe those values and how to use them in assessing social pollution's impact on our lives next time.


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