Open Source Truth

I do not have a lot of respect for the Open Source community politics, but they have one really good insight into the matter of truth, explained somewhat at length in Eric Raymond's essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and briefly in his more pithy line in that essay, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

In the computer worldview bugs are errors that need correction. In software the hardest part is finding them, thus the reference to depth: deep bugs are much harder to find. Raymond's insight here is that the more people who are looking for errors, the fewer of them remain hidden. This is true of all kinds of errors, not just programming mistakes. In this essay I explore some of the other kinds of errors that "many eyeballs" can help expose, with special reference to two particularly American ideals, the free-market economy and rugged individualism, which give rise to that kind of polyoptism.

I suppose individualism is the prototypical ideal here. It comes to us out of the Protestant Reformation, where every believer is accountable directly to God without any priestly intermediary. In its most general form, individualism urges each person to do his own thinking, make his own products, live in his own house -- essentially to be completely independent. In its extreme form the notion is anti-Christian: we cannot be independent, certainly not from God, but in modern urban society not from each other either; the Christian "body" teaching emphasizes that fact. However, there is a degree to which a certain amount of individual independence is a good thing, and independent thinking offers that "all bugs are shallow" benefit in our theology as well.

In addition to the obvious excesses, individualism does come with its problems. One of them is the proliferation of goofy ideas, represented most vividly in the notion that "tinfoil hats" will somehow protect the wearer from harmful radiation (which is nonsense, of course). There are a large variety of similarly misinformed pseudo-science ideas floating around, from apricot-pit cancer cures to taking antibiotics for colds and flu. Some (like excessive use of antibiotic drugs) are actually harmful, but not catastrophically. On the whole, however, individualism and the general ornery quality of the human spirit encourages us to subject these ideas to critical scrutiny. While any single analysis could be wrong, on the average the truth wins.

This does not work when people blindly follow their guru. The best persuaders are not necessarily the most insightful thinkers, so sometimes we get little blips of goofiness spreading out over larger segments of the population -- like the Y2K hysteria that preceeded the turn of the millennium. But even in those cases, the better thinking eventually prevails and the nutcakes move on to some new tinfoil hat craze.

Why does the better thinking prevail? That's where the market economy comes in. A managed economy, like the authoritarian way of thinking, does not offer any choices. You take the product at the offered price or do without. In a marketplace you can pick and choose between the various offerings and prices. This has the interesting effect that the higher-priced products tend to disappear: buyers choose their competitors, and the high-priced vendors either bring their prices into line with the competition or go out of business. There is also the possibility of offering more value for the higher price, so the quality tends to rise to the minimum level that most people no longer care for more, but then any additional quality improvements become uneconomic and are driven from the market.

This works with ideas, too. The really goofy ideas (like tinfoil hats) are seen to confer so little benefit that they are effectively priced out of the market. Going to Mexico for alternative-medicine cancer cures is an acceptable option only for those wealthy enough to afford the travel and the shysters in that business -- and the failure is readily blamed on the late start while still undergoing conventional treatment. Conspiracy theories like the JFK assasination story and more recently the 9/11 hoax don't cost their followers much, and they are actually rather fun -- especially if you happen to dislike the politics of the alleged perpetrators. Others, like the 861 tax protest, can be more costly: 861's leader and most vocal supporter, Larken Rose, went to jail for tax fraud. But by and large the common sense of the public wins out.

A totalitarian society like Hitler's Germany controls the press, so this marketplace of ideas is not there and does not work. You don't get the goofy tinfoil hat notions, but there is also opportunity for actual cover-ups like the German death camps. However, with free-market mass media and especially now the internet, these totalitarian cultures are disappearing. China, a notorious holdout, is losing its grip on the flow of information.

I am particularly interested in one idea that has been pretty much under totalitarian control for over a century. The Darwinists have managed to hold absolute control over the educational institutions and the mass media of this country for about a century now. Yet even at the height of their supremacy they never successfully controlled a majority of public opinion. Now we are seeing a strong movement out of the totalitarian public education institutions into private schools, and recently into homeschools. The cost of education is substantially higher in these alternatives, but the quality is demonstrably higher. The marketplace offers a significant advantage, which the teacher unions recognize and fear. Like China, all they can do is tighten their futile grip on the flow of information. The Darwinists know their product cannot survive in the free market of ideas.

I would like to see market economics have the same effect on Biblical Christianity, but the marketplace is not sufficiently open to make that happen, at least not in my lifetime. I must be satisfied with the amazing success of Christianity (in various forms in the different locales) toppling the Soviet hegemony, and with an overly charismatic form of it making the Roman Catholic church in Latin America clean up their act. American missionaries are not welcome in many restricted access nations (the so-called "10/40 window") but Korea and Japan and even Chinese churches are now filling in the gap. People have a choice, and they are choosing the Truth.

Tom Pittman
2007 July 10