What makes an idea interesting?

“It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.” — Murray Davis

What does it take to become known as a great theorist / writer / thinker? As the quote above suggests, it's not simply whether you come up with theories that are true - they also have to be interesting. That's not to say that your theories should be untrue, only that truth alone is not enough to make people think of you as one of the greats.

So what is it that makes a theory interesting?

In 1971, the sociologist Murray Davis wrote a paper to try and answer this question. In general terms, he finds that, "A new theory will be noticed only when it denies an old truth, proverb, platitude, maxim, adage, saying, commonplace, etc."

He adds, "All interesting theories, at least all interesting social theories, then, constitute an attack on the taken-for-granted world of their audience. … If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, [the audience] will respond to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth."

In other words, an audience finds a theory interesting when it identifies some part of their world view that they have assumed to be true and shows it to be false. If a theory confirms what they already thought to be true, then they will agree it is true, but reject the value of the theory. For example:

  • Darwin's theory of evolution is interesting because it takes what looks like a perfectly designed natural world and reveals that it is in fact the result of chaos and survival of the fittest.
  • Google's research has revealed that to build a high performing team, the only requirement is that there is psychological safety. This contradicts many people's assumptions that, for example, high performing teams require a team of experts, or a strong leader, etc.

However, you must also be careful not to go too far, or to challenge beliefs that are held too strongly by your audience. As Davis points out, "There is a fine but definite line between asserting the surprising and asserting the shocking, between the interesting and the absurd. An interesting proposition [is] one which denies[s] the weakly held assumptions of its audience. But those who attempt to deny the strong held assumptions of their audience will have their very sanity called into question. They will be accused of being lunatics; if scientists, they will be called 'crackpots'. If the difference between the inspired and the insane is only in the degree of tenacity of the particular audience assumptions they choose to attack, it is perhaps for this reason that genius has always been considered close to madness."

As many awkward dinner conversations have revealed, there is a thin line between interesting challenges to your assumptions and offensive attacks on your deepest held beliefs. Try if you can to stay on the right side of that line.

Another possible challenge for society in general is that we're often in danger of looking only at what's interesting, and not making sure that theories are actually true. Surely everyone has experienced hearing about some idea or explanation for a phenomenon which is really fascinating, only to find out later that it isn't true. For me this was the notion that humans only use 10% of our brains, a frequently repeated, but utterly incorrect claim. Even today it's repeated all over the place, and I think it has stuck around precisely because it really is an interesting idea! When you first hear the claim that we only use 10% of our brains, it's completely surprising because of course we assumed that we used all of our brains.

There must still be thousands of people around the world who believe this claim now, so there's almost no hope of correcting everyone. The claim is interesting enough (and minimally plausible) that it doesn't really matter that it's not true. My concern is that this happens more often than we think.

Interesting Start Ups and Boring Business

I think this general outline applies equally well to start ups. What does it take to be a great start up? It's not enough that it should make money, that goes without saying (or it should do). It also has to be interesting. And an interesting start up is much like an interesting theory or idea.

Sometimes the key to being seen as a great start up is that it challenges an assumption your customers thought was true. The examples of upended assumptions include:

  • People will never want to stay in a random strangers house that they found on the internet. (Airbnb)
  • Normal people won't offer to drive strangers around in their own cars. (Uber)
  • Buying books over the internet will never catch on. (Amazon)
  • No one will use a service if you can only use 140 characters. (Twitter).

The list goes on.

If you want to build a startup that generates the near mythical status of Uber / Amazon / Twitter / etc, then you can't just be a good business, you also have to challenge an assumption your audience always thought was true.

Having said all that, I think the same problem can apply to start ups as applies to theories. Sometimes we're at risk of only looking at whether a start up is interesting, and not whether it's true (i.e. makes money, is a good business, etc). Theranos, infamously raised millions of dollars of investment money on the claim that they had invented a way to test blood samples that was insanely more efficient than previously, using a method that was judged by the experts to be impossible. Again, a very interesting start up! So interesting that they didn't really check that it's claims were true.

A lesson for us all that we shouldn't let interesting over shadow what's true.