Saturday, July 21, 2007

Snakeoil Sales in the Marketplace of Ideas

Lubos recently posted an interesting and stimulating essay on the market of ideas and how it might work better in science. Well, I'm not really going to talk about that detailed of a topic but more of a survey of one of the problems with a market of ideas. (We're only wading in here since my intellectual tide is so low. ;-) )

Every market that has ever existed has had its share of snakeoil sales. This is just one of the inherent traits of an open and free market in which all types can participate. There will always be room for less than honest people trying to make a buck off of gullible and/or desperate people, whether they are offering some miracle cures for ailments, a utopian sociopolitical system, a perfect religion, a scientific theory, or any other good, service, or idea (or combination of those). It would be nice if I'd go and list a bunch of examples of each type and how and why they fall into the snakeoil sales category. But can't everyone already think of some examples? Besides I don't want to get caught up in some "debate" about which examples are or aren't snakeoil. That's not my point here. (I'm using that reason because I learned it from an "intellectually serious" person. ;-) )

Okay, now what was I going to say? Sometimes I crack myself up and lose my train of thought. It's an occupational hazard to being the Sacred Fool. ;-) Well, crap. That train's done left the station. I'll have to wait until it comes back around. Sorry.

La, la, la, la, la. Well, here comes another.

The previously mentioned Lubos essay got me into a miscommunication with someone. I was trying to help him save some time by telling him that something was snakeoil and why it was snakeoil. I was only trying to tell him the "bottom line" but he didn't want to hear it for some reason. Some people are like that though. I'm like that too, actually. I like to think things out on my own before I decide if some advice is valuable or not. Anyway, some people too readily dismiss some ideas which is as much a problem as too readily accepting them. Sometimes it is hard to know which is the snakeoil and which really is a good new thing. But things being hard to do shouldn't mean that we shouldn't try to figure them out.

So now what? We know that snakeoil will always exist and that some people will buy it right up without any thought and that some people will quickly know that it's snakeoil and not buy it at all. And we know that sometimes fights break out when the two different types of people start talking about the snakeoil. But we also know that sometimes fights break out because some people who make snakeoil will say that the good stuff isn't good in an attempt to make more money. It's all part of that dishonesty trait that all snakeoil salesmen have.

Well, what in the world can you do to maintain some peace in the marketplace when there is all of this fighting? And how do the customers know who to believe and what to buy? How do the good guys convince the people that the snakeoil guys are lying and not to waste their money? Testimonials. (See, I'm the Great Wizard of Hoes, and I'm giving out prizes to the fearless few who dare to listen. ;-) )

Testimonials are when someone tells you from their own experience that something works well and is a good value. I guess testimonials vary in value too depending on the giver's and receiver's own traits, and that is why they aren't always successful. (And why my own testimonial was dismissed in the previous miscommunication.) Of course, the snakeoil salesmen can make up and/or buy fake testimonials too, and that further complicates things.

You know, that train just stopped. I think I'll get off of it and see about another one. Wait a minute. Why am I talking about trains when we're supposed to be wading in a low tide?

Okay, sorry, this is how things go when you are constantly interrupted with "momma, momma, momma" when you're trying to think and write.

Maybe what I was going to say is that sometimes there are people who just have to try that snakeoil for themselves just so they know for sure, even when they've been told plenty that it really is snakeoil. And even though that is going to cause problems in the marketplace, if it's going to be a truly free and open marketplace then they should have that freedom to try the snakeoil if they really want to. Of course, we must have laws to protect people from things that are obviously more dangerous than not, but I don't want to get in a debate about examples of those right now either. ;-) (I've already covered some of those in the past anyway.) And there will always be a few people who just don't ever realize that the snakeoil is exactly that. Maybe they like it? But it is their choice, I suppose.

So there you go. I hope your feet aren't too soggy, but maybe it wasn't too hard to see the point of wading instead of diving (not that there's anything wrong with diving). I haven't "solved" any specific problems here, but I hope I've at least shown that when looking at certain concepts it is necessary to accept some "pre-existing conditions" (or "assumptions", I guess, is what the serious people call them ;-) ), like the existence of snakeoil. You don't have to dive too deep to see the bottom when you're wading in the low tide. And sometimes that's a good thing.

The fine print: In case it's not obvious, I really did intend to use the Wizard of Oz, a snakeoil salesman himself, as an ironic allusion.


The Guy said...

Oh man! I went cross-eyed right before you got to "momma, momma, momma!" Sorry I couldn't finish reading that, promise I'll come back tomorrow and try again. My brain just hit the "full" mark and I don't want to spill any.

But the "market of ideas" is a fascinating subject. You should cross-check the wikipedia entry for "memes" or memetics, you'll dig that field. More like a "Jungle of Ideas" wherein every sort of evolution takes part. My friend Tom Scott used to call it "psychic surfing" ;-)

Whew! that got rid of just enough information that now my head wont blow.


Bee said...

Hey RaeAnn,

The background image you mentioned is still online, if you like to download it you find it here. Best,


dhammett said...

I've seen plenty of snakeoil and its salesmen in my day. Probably the one that p*ssed me off the most was an alleged cure for cancer. Now, I'm all for going outside the box where a killer disease is concerned, but this SOS claimed the disease was caused by parasites, based upon a doctor in Tijuana. He then claimed a simple transistor device emitting a certain frequency would kill the parasites.

Well, when a pathologist from the local university debunked it as a fraud, a local news channel persisted in publicizing the "possible" beneficial aspects (as if there were any), encouraging the public to "make up their own mind." It was as egregious example of irresponsible reporting as I can remember seeing. I'm not sure what was worse...the SOS or the tv newspeople who publicized it. GRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!

Rae Ann said...

Hi Guy, sorry, my brain's kind of like a blender these days. ;-)

Bee, thanks!

Hi DH! long time, no see! It's been such a busy, hectic summer. It wouldn't really bother me too much if a bunch of the snakeoil salesmen trying to make money off of cancer and other illnesses got beat real bad in the streets. ;-) Might serve as a good example of what not to do. Thanks for stopping by!