When Elon Musk speaks, people listen, even when it’s not too clear if he has any idea what he’s talking about. Musk’s every word is scrutinized, and each of his ideas is heralded as a breakthrough in human discovery. For example: the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX announces that he believes reality is actually a simulation, and suddenly, the theory becomes mainstream. And when Musk reiterates his belief that the world’s population is headed for collapse by 2050, the internet becomes littered with think-pieces proclaiming Musk’s prophecy as scripture.
That’s why we should all be concerned that Musk is asking for government approval to start hacking people’s brains. You read that right. His company NeuraLink, which attempts to connect the human brain to a computer interface, has applied for permission to start testing the device on humans. The system has already been tested on a monkey.
But Musk isn’t a prophet, nor is he a world-class philosopher; he’s just a businessman—albeit a very successful one. And therein lies the problem. Musk is a self-built, tremendously successful individual. He founded PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla—three monumentally important companies. He is one of the richest men in the world. Does any of that have to do with his ability to predict shifts in global population? Of course not. Unfortunately, we’re predisposed to think the opposite.
Elon Musk is a case study in the halo effect, a cognitive bias that influences how people perceive each other. Generally, individuals showing tremendous ability in one particular subject are often assumed to hold expertise in other areas as well. Ever wonder why people care what actors have to say about politics? The halo effect is the reason. As any rational person would point out, celebrity status does not confer political wisdom, but that doesn’t stop people from paying attention to actors’ politics.
Much in the same way, the SpaceX CEO, with his talk of space exploration and Mars colonization, has become something of an intellectual celebrity as of late. With Musk’s growing fame has come a cadre of supporters who view his perspective as gospel. This shift has encouraged Musk to take increasingly strong positions on topics like philosophy, artificial intelligence, and—most recently—public policy.
In 2018, for example, Musk made waves during an interview on 60 Minutes when he proclaimed that he did not respect the SEC. Nor did he respect their decision to hold him accountable for tweets that could affect the stock price of his publicly-traded company, Tesla. Musk was subsequently brought up on charges of securities fraud and was even at risk of being held in contempt of court.
Do we really want to give an alleged law-breaker the keys to our brain?
None of the above, however, did much to damage Musk’s reputation. His supporters rallied behind him, accepting the claims that he did nothing wrong, despite the clear evidence to the contrary. Musk isn’t a lawyer, nor is he an expert in securities fraud, but to the general masses, those facts don’t matter. Due to the halo effect, the public decried Musk’s innocence and even jeered when Musk trolled the SEC over Twitter.