Patents are an interesting incentive mechanism, in that they don't address most of idea-space. For instance, they reward the origin of an idea, but not users of effective ideas. That seems a bit redundant – ideally useful ideas would be their own reward – but it's worth understanding that ideas alone are useless, so this omission is intentional, not incidental.

But failing to use a good idea isn't the only failure mode – if you do use a bad idea, that's bad. You can file patents for terrible ideas, and get protection for something that wouldn't work. But the worst ideas truly do have a cost – Marx can limit unauthorized copying of Das Kapital – but our system also imposes no monetary penalty, or weaker enforcement of moral rights, for the millions harmed by it. It only gives (1) benefits to (2) new (3) ideas, disregarding quality. And this has strange effects on all other ways of learning and knowing.

For instance, if an old tribe has an ancient remedy for toothaches, we'd like to incentivize them to share it, for the same reason we incentivize a pharma company to develop the same. But the current patent system would fail to protect 'common knowledge', even if more people could know about it, and they'd be helped.

It used to be almost all human knowledge was cultural. We'd know a lot about survival and local environment and some tools and each other. We wouldn't know a whole lot of whys. But you don't need understanding when you have guess-and-check like culture has. If you think something isn't poison, eat it, and are wrong, the system learns, even if you don't.

It's possible our abstracted society is, in some ways, the consequence of an incentive system prizing individual, discrete, high-confidence statements (regardless of accuracy) – ignoring implicit knowledge, cultural understanding, humility (which helps the signal to noise ratio of society) and the benefits of spreading subtle but effective ideas. So of course we find subtle but effective ideas to be held in low esteem, more and more knowledge is explicit, and people seem to be getting more and more certain without being more and more accurate. Traditions gradually replaced by online tutorials. An improvement in many ways, even if there might be less broad knowledge and more common errors.

At least, that's possibly a factor, it seems to me – but this is pretty fertile ground for false correlations.