Is It Better to Have No Ideas Than False Ones?

Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have said the following:

It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.

Now contrast that with this great quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt seems to imply that it doesn’t necessarily matter what the man in the arena is fighting for, but that he is fighting, and this alone elevates him to a higher pedestal than the spectator.

That’s all fine and well in, say, a sporting event. But apply this logic elsewhere.

Should we think higher of the politician who believes he is fighting for a worthy cause — but a cause we virulently disagree with — than the citizen bystander not running for anything?

Should we respect the person who has taken the time to come up with ideas — but ideas you think are dangerous — more than the person who has produced no ideas at all?

Do you respect the ignorant voter more than the one who chooses not to vote at all?

10 comments on “Is It Better to Have No Ideas Than False Ones?
  • I think the choice goes beyond the idea in and of itself but in the decision-making from which the “idea” will be implemented.

    A good plan is much more likely to go poorly with a poor decision making process. A bad plan could end up not doing so badly with a good decision making process.

    This is not to say that good outcomes can come out of poor processes and vice versa, but the likelihood of poor outcomes increases for sure when you have a poor decision-making process.

  • The Jefferson quote ticks off hollow thinkers and false starts. It is more micro; in that it strives to emphasize rational thought process, robust executable ideas that makes sense. The Roosevelt quote is broad and fundamental; it extols risk taking and why we must respect those triers for what they are. It derides the deriders.

    In that light, the politician may go after a worthy idea, but if in that effort he is unable to rally popular support with him, he’d rather be rated honorable than a citizen bystander yet ineffective amongst his ranks.

    Propagator of a *dangerous* idea is always worthy of contempt.

  • Seems to be apples and oranges as far I can see? I think Jefferson may be talking about beliefs rather than ‘ideas’ in the pure sense. The other by Roosevelt seems to be more about the dynamic of using ideas as applied to active work.

    I see beliefs as something that are rarely changable – technically there is no right and wrong as the beliefs themselves define them. Ideas on the other hand are actively shaped continuously through some thinking process, that you would imagine would become more refined over time.

  • Choosing between a wrong-headed person with convictions and an ignoramus without them is like being asked to choose between the guillotine and the firing squad.

    Ignorance is scary, but unreasoning certainty is even scarier.

    I covered this subject at length in my post, “The Problem With Religion.”

    Here’s the money quote:

    “Certainty, especially a certainty born of faith, is a loaded gun that falls all too easily into the wrong hands. I believe in approaching everything with a healthy skepticism. I’ve been wrong far too many times to believe that I know the answers. The same holds true for mankind. We’ve been around for millions of years, and we laugh when we look at the mistaken certainties of previous generations. Yet you can bet the farm that our descendants will think the same about us.

    Anyone who is absolutely certain about a belief is likely to be wrong. And in the case of people who are certain that theirs is the one true God, it’s a virtual certainty. If there is one true God, and one true religion, the vast majority of humanity is barking up the wrong tree. Even Christianity, the world’s most popular religion, accounts for only 20% of the world’s population–and that’s not even taking into account the various flavors of Christianity.”

  • Chris Yeh’s point about people with wrong convictions is true. But on in the long run, I’ll take someone who is active within an idea over someone content to be ignorant.

    Someone who is engaged–even wrongly–is eventually bound to learn *something*.

  • Stan,

    I agree that there is a chance that the wrong-headed but engaged may eventually learn something…but I’d rather not have them learn it on my dime.

    There is an important distinction between beliefs and approaches. I think both Obama and McCain hold wrong-headed beliefs. But I’m more confident that Obama’s rational, pragmatic approach will result in learning.

  • I sincerely believe that not everyone is cut to be leader. If they’re bad at decision-making, they’d better follow the crowd they’re in. At least they will be useful to form a critical mass.

    But how do we avoid the Nazi phenomenon? Moral standards from centuries-old institutions, say, religion, may be useful here. They have so much experiences in their lifetime.

  • Both admit the existence of uncertainty. Ultimately, I like Roosevelt’s because it is a more comprehensive argument.

    Jefferson says it is better to have no idea than a false idea. False ideas are bad and no ideas are valueless (neither good nor bad).

    Roosevelt says that it is better to act in accordance with what you think are true ideas.

    Either way, you can’t be sure which ideas are good and which are bad. I support both Roosevelt and Jefferson.

    I’m with Roosevelt because often times you have to try to find out and learning requires action.

    I’m with Jefferson because sometimes it’s better not to act when you are uncertain.

    Both are right. Their arguments are compatible and compliment each other because there are scenarios in which you should act, and those in which you should not. I have inserted a simple algorithm below which outlines how we incorporate both daily.


    A good algorithm for humans to operate on combines Roosevelt’s and Jefferson’s points:

    Have values (you can’t avoid this one: all humans have values)

    Act on values you are convinced of but admit you might be wrong.

    Reflect on those you are unsure of and admit you are unsure.

    When new knowledge dictates inconsistencies in your values, change your values to be more consistent with this new information.


    Jefferson’s statement is incomplete. While it is better to have no idea than have a false idea, it is also better to have a true idea than having a false idea or no idea. For different reasons, too.

    It is better to have a true idea than a false idea, because that’s the very definition of true and false. True = right. False = wrong.

    It is better to have a true idea than no idea because a true idea has value and “no idea” has no value. In other words, “no idea” exists outside of the quality spectrum. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 would be a false idea and 10 would be a true idea. “No idea” would not exist anywhere on the scale. It is void.


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