After months of diligent study I have finally become the person you edge away from at parties. At the last one I attended I began, after a few drinks, to dilate on alpha theory as usual. One of the guests suggested that I become a prophet for a new cult, which was certainly a lucky thing, and I want to thank him, because that joke would never have occurred to me on my own.
As with party-goers, so with blog-readers. The vast majority of my (former) readership has greeted alpha theory with some hostility but mostly indifference, and for excellent reason. It is a general theory, and humans have high sales resistance to general theories.
Generality offends in itself. Theories of human behavior apply to all humans, and that means you. If you’re anything like me, and you are, when you look at a graphed distribution of some human characteristic, no matter what it is, you harbor a secret hope that you fall at a tail, or better still, outside the distribution altogether. It is not that we are all above average, like the children of Lake Woebegon. Oh no: we are all extraordinary. Surely the statistician has somehow failed to account for me and my precious unique inviolable self. Nobody wants to be a data point. General theories, including alpha theory, often involve equations, and nobody likes an equation either.
General theories are also susceptible to error, the more susceptible the more general they are. An old academic joke about general surveys applies to general theories as well. I first heard it about Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, a once-common college text, but it has made the rounds in many forms. Whichever English professor you asked about Parrington, he would praise the book, adding parenthetically, “Of course he knows nothing about my particular subject.”
Someone seeking to explain a wide range of apparently disparate phenomena usually overlooks a few facts. By the time these are brought to his attention he is too heavily invested in the theory to give it up. He hides or explains away the offending facts and publishes his theory anyway, to world-wide yawns.
The gravest danger of a general theory is that it might be true — more precisely, that you may come to believe it. Believing a new general theory is a mighty expensive proposition. You’ve built up a whole complicated web of rules that have worked for you in the past, and now you have to go back and reevaluate them all in light of this new theory. This is annoying, and a gigantic energy sink besides. General theories, including alpha theory, tend to attract adherents from among the young, who have less to throw away — lower sunk costs, as the economists say. For most of us dismissing a new theory out of hand is, probabilistically, a winning strategy. Some might call this anti-intellectualism: I call it self-preservation.
(I will not go so far as to claim that alpha theory predicts its own resistance. Down that road lies madness. “You don’t believe in Scientology? Of course you don’t. Scientology can explain that! Wait! Where are you going?”)
General theorists often insist that anyone who disagrees with their theory find a flaw in its derivation. I have been known to take this line myself, and it is utterly unreasonable. If someone showed up at my door with a complicated theory purporting to demonstrate some grotesque proposition, say, that cannibalism conduces to human survival, and demanded that I show where he went wrong, I’d kick him downstairs. Yes, they laughed at Edison, they laughed at Fulton. They also laughed at a hundred thousand crackpot megalomaniacs while they were at it.
So if you still want alpha theory to dry up and blow away, I understand. No hard feelings. And if you’ve written me off as some kind of nut, well, could be. The thought has crossed my mind. I can assure you only that I ardently desire to be delivered from my dementia. It would do wonders for my social life.
(Addendum: I want to make it perfectly clear that, although I have written about alpha theory for several months now, I did not invent it. I am not nearly intelligent enough to have invented it. That honor belongs to “Bourbaki,” well-known to the readers of the comments. Me, I’m a sort of combination PR man and applied alpha engineer. Oh wait — there aren’t any applications yet. Don’t worry, there will be.)