Questioning conventional wisdom

By nature I’m more credulous than skeptical, more likely to accept an explanation at face value rather than to demand proof. But I also work hard to understand views that buck the conventional wisdom rather than rejecting them out of hand. Even when I conclude that the unconventional view is in fact crazy, as in the case of Mormonism, understanding the view helps me understand and empathize with the people who hold it.

And sometimes the unconventional view actually makes more sense. Many times as I’ve continued walking down the path to an agrarian life I’ve hesitated to take the next step, because the next step was crazy according to conventional thinking. But study and thought eventually showed that conventional thinking on the matter was wrong, and so we continued on. This has happened often enough that conventional wisdom no longer carries any weight with me. I will give an enormous amount of up-front respect to beliefs that have become traditions as they were tested by time, but a modern-day consensus doesn’t matter to me at all.

And so I’m always looking for good case studies, situations that are contained enough that I might have some hope of studying them thoroughly and coming to some solid conclusions. The episode with the Branch Davidians is one good example. Another is modern-day food politics, i.e. why are we so prone to believe that a time-tested food such as untreated milk is suddenly a threat to our health? Given the path we’re following, it’s more than just idle curiosity that drives me to understand this.

Here’s a good article on one of the latest food-related fads, namely the demonization of fatness. It’s a lengthy review of two books that question the thinking behind the current consensus that there is an obesity epidemic. Not only does the review show that the conventional wisdom here is mostly wrong, it spends some time looking at the politics that have shaped the conventional wisdom.


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