Allocating Intellectual Attention

There are a few standard ways intellectual attention is allocated to ideas.

There are social networks. Having allies and fans helps with getting attention.

There are gatekeepers and lots of people follow their curated output.

There’s popularity or virality. Saying stuff people like and share, or which seems good to them, can get attention for ideas.

There’s saying ideas and then people judge whether the ideas seem worth attention. They often just ignore unknown authors, or just read the very start or a brief summary, or just read someone else’s opinion of it. They often dismiss stuff without stating a reason or spending much time on it. Some stuff intuitively seems promising or interesting to people so they give it more of a chance.

Sometimes people pay more attention to something because it triggers or angers them, and they want to attack it. Sometimes that extra attention leads to them learning about it and liking it, despite their initial bias against it.

None of these approaches are very good at figuring out what’s true or allocating attentions to the best ideas.

Trying to judge what’s worth your attention does involve some attempt at figuring out what ideas are good. However, due to the lack of transparency about why ideas are dismissed, it enables biases. If you’re biased against an idea, you’ll dismiss it even if you’re wrong. In that case, there’s no good way for your error to be fixed because you didn’t give a refutation. You assumed you were right without giving your arguments, so if your arguments are mistaken people can’t point out the errors. Often people won’t give arguments because they are going by subconscious intuition, and the time cost of giving arguments is their excuse to hide their inability to state reasonable arguments in words.

Using gatekeepers is potentially a way of outsourcing truth-seeking. The gatekeepers will hopefully make a rational, productive attempt to figure out which ideas merit attention. They’ll hopefully do the intellectual work that you didn’t do. However, in practice, gatekeepers often enforce existing biases and social status hierarchies rather than being open-minded about outliers. And gatekeepers tend to have poor transparency. Also, it’s common that many different gatekeepers think similarly, so following many different curated feeds of information is vulnerable to systematic biases.

The standard excuse for people’s unargued rejections of ideas is that time and energy are limited resources. That’s true. And there are way too many ideas to read everything. Also true. So efficient, organized systems with anti-bias design features are needed, not simply despair or rationalizing the status quo as being pretty good. But there’s not much research or interest for this problem. I’ve thought and written a lot about these issues such as Paths Forward and articles about debate methodology.