Paul Staley: The Marketplace of Ideas

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Paul Staley says the marketplace of ideas isn't the emporium of free thought it's cracked up to be.

The marketplace of ideas is a vast virtual warehouse. Inside you can choose from an inventory that runs the gamut from the official version to the debunked and discredited. It’s all there and it’s open 24/7. Expert opinion is prominently displayed, but there’s no requirement that you select any of it.

Our shopping behavior suggests that this emporium of ideas could use a better layout. It appears that many of us stop in the politics section first and then look to accessorize that set of ideas with something from the science aisles. You don’t have to select something from the evidence displays before heading over to the theory section. You can select an explanation first and then handpick the evidence that supports it.

Another problem is that if we don’t find what we want in one aisle we can just turn down the next and look for a substitute. For example, if we’re in the market for authoritative guidance we may find the products in the religion section shopworn and outdated. So we do our shopping instead from the science racks. But in doing so we may be expecting the wrong thing. Science is a process of discovery that operates at a constantly shifting boundary between the known and the unknown. It offers answers, but these may be subject to recall as new information comes in. We can say that we want to follow the science but that means that we need to sign the disclaimer that we agree to follow a route that may not always be a straight line. That can be confusing and some may just stop shopping in the science section altogether.

Or, some may just go back to the religious inventory because those products come in containers without expiration dates.


Speaking of shelf life, we should all admit that our most cherished ideas, the ones we call our core beliefs, also don’t expire. And so our shopping trips to the market of ideas are more like getting our oil changed: routine maintenance and an assurance that we can continue operating in the same manner as always.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.