The Siren Song of Sexy Ideas

If you are a language nerd like me you may have heard of something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  If you haven’t heard of it, then stated briefly it goes something like this: “People’s thoughts are bound by the language they use.”  For instance, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis would say, “If your language has no word for the color red, you will not be able to recognize red as an independent color.

Cool idea right?  I mean the conception that the very words we use changes our perception of reality in some deep and fundamental way?  Very cool.  Too bad it’s wrong.

I’m not going to get into a debate here about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in specific because it’s not my field, but there has been plenty of research done debunking this idea.  And yet, there are still people  out there, smart people, who believe in it.  Why?

Because it is a cool idea.  They wouldn’t put it in so many words of course, but that’s the truth of the matter.  There are some ideas that are just so much fun that our brain can’t let go of them.  For the sake of simplicity we’ll call these Sexy Ideas.  Take, for instance, the following XKCD comic.

Now you’ve probably all heard this explanation of the operation of the wing in school.  And the thing is, it makes sense.  You hear about the air travelling faster over the top than over the bottom and you think, “Yeah, that fits.”  In fact it fits so well that I believed the wrong version of the explanation until the day I read this comic.  And when I learned the truth? I was crushed.  Why had I been told a lie? Why were teachers in schools continuing to spread this misconception? What was wrong with the world?

This is the problem: The “air travels faster over the top because it has farther to go” explanation has endured so long and will continue to endure for generations because it is a Sexy Idea.  The truth on the other hand is clunky and boring.  The truth says, “There are a number of complex and hard to solve equations that come into play when you’re dealing with compressible fluid flow around a solid object.”  See what I mean?  That’s not very satisfying at all.  Sexy Ideas are simple concepts.  They stick in our brain because we can wrap our minds around them, and make them fit into our finite understanding of the issues.

The problem is that the world is not made up of simple concepts.

Recently there has been a focus on the tone of political debate in the nation.  They say the rhetoric between the two parties was part of the cause of the Tuscon Massacre and that Republicans and Democrats should tone down the kinds of words they use in their arguments.

The idea that any one thing could be responsible for a disturbed young man going out and killing nine people is a dangerous Sexy Idea of its own, but the debate about having too much debate got me thinking about why our system works the way it does.

In America we have a two-party system.  One the one side you have Democrats and on the other side you have Republicans.  These two parties run up against each other like rams butting horns on nearly every important issue.  But my question is this: are there really only two sides to every issue?  Take the health care bill passed last year for instance.  The Republicans are against it.  The Democrats are for it.  Period.  End of story.

The idea that more than a thousand pages of legislation can be either completely right or completely wrong is a Sexy Idea.  It’s wrong of course, but for a politician that’s not the point.  The point is, it’s really hard to go home and say to your  constituents, “Well see its a complicated issue and some of it may be okay and actually help people, but I believe the overall effect would be more negative than positive.”  It is far easier to say, “This bill will KILL YOUR GRANDMA!”  The idea that the health care bill will kill your grandma is a Sexy Idea.  It’s an idea that sticks with people and makes an emotional impact.

How can we fix this?  Well we can’t.  No really, we’re pretty well screwed.  The society as a whole is going to go on embracing Sexy Ideas and confusing them for Right Ideas.  The only thing we can change for certain is ourselves.

So the next time you hear an idea that makes your heart pound or seems delightfully simple, take a closer look.  Chances are it’s a Sexy Idea.  You still won’t catch them all, but you’ll be better equipped to deal with a world that is more complex than our finite minds can ever hope to imagine.

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