Information cascade

This book review mentions a phenomenon that sociologists call an “information cascade,” a situation where a consensus among experts is created not because of steadily accumulating evidence but because experts simply accept and parrot the opinion of other experts who came before them. Apparently there is good reason to doubt that there was ever any evidence of a link between a high fat diet and heart disease, but in the 1950s the idea quickly went from being one guy’s dubious opinion to being the prevailing view, so much so that until recently it was nutritional heresy to suggest that fat might be neutral or even good for you.

Giving a phenomenon a name doesn’t do anything to explain it, and this one already had a couple of perfectly good names—fad, conventional wisdom, and received wisdom come to mind. And I am reluctant to go looking at what academic sociologists have to say about the phenomenon. But still I’m curious about a few things. Is this a modern defect, or a universal one? Were people always too credulous, or has this changed recently? If credulity hasn’t changed, could it be that mixing it with our modern dependence on experts has created something new and especially bad?

Right now I’m looking at the biblical justification for some ideas that are widely held in church circles. What I’ve been finding is that some complex and elaborate systems have been built on very slender reeds. Part of the problem, I think, is that the systems are not anti-biblical, only extra-biblical, and they may even be good and useful things to have. But knowing that something is good and useful is not enough for us, and so we go in search of passages in the Bible that sound like they might mandate such conclusions—at least if you say them loudly and emphatically while looking at the listener as if to say, “How can you possibly not see this?”


6 thoughts on “Information cascade

  1. Rick,
    I agree with you completely. It seems that if something is said loud enough, and often enough…it must be true. Al Gore getting the Nobel prize is just a recent example. Today I have spent a great deal of time pondering where the church is now, as opposed to where God intended for it to be. I have been re-reading your articles and Dave’s on Anabaptists as well, and they are giving me a lot to think about it.

    What are a couple of your favorite books on agrarianism?

  2. “But knowing that something is good and useful is not enough for us, and so we go in search of passages in the Bible that sound like they might mandate such conclusions”

    Be careful, here. I’m not sure we can legitimately find a ‘biblical mandate’ for every good and useful thing. If we insist upon such, we will only misinterpret the Scriptures and go astray. The Bible tells us everything we need to know to be reconciled with God. That’s the main theme – redemption. But there are many other good and necessary everyday things that must be weighed and brought into harmony with the Scriptures; and yet the Scriptures don’t tell us precisely what we should do in those cases.

    Perhaps I could comment on this in more detail if you’d be willing to share the specifics of your struggles? It sounds like you’re wrestling with the ‘traditions of men’ in some form or other? It’s important to realize, I think, that tradition as such is impossible to avoid. We may reject a certain tradition(s) as unbiblical only to gradually define and form our own. The Protestant reformation, for example, rejected much of the traditions surrounding the Roman Catholic church. Only to adopt many traditions of their own residing within many different denominations instead of one monolithic church. But if you survey the many different streams of protestant thought, you will find that all of them were present within mideivel catholicism at one time or another.

    Anabaptists are no different in this regard. They have adopted certain traditions that also rest on slender biblical reeds. Head coverings for women, teaching on men’s beards, what clothes to wear and which to avoid, which technology to use, which to avoid, these are all traditions. On the other hand, catholic tradition tells us in part that it’s permissable to address prayers to saints, that monks should shave the tops of their heads, that the bread and wine really does become the body and blood of Christ when the Priest recites the proper words. We reject those traditions primarily because we reject, or minimize the importance of, much of church history. We tend to think that God abandoned the church of the Middle Ages until Martin Luther and the reformers ‘rediscovered’ grace. So now today, instead of speaking the words of institution over bread and wine, we urge sinners to recite a canned prayer and ‘ask Jesus into your heart’, and presto, you’re saved. But where did our evangelical traditions come from, and really, how do we justify biblically, this practice of asking Jesus into our hearts? Where is that in the Scriptures?

    Please understand, I’m not castigating anyone’s church or beliefs. I’m merely pointing out that all of us practice and believe things we can’t justify very well from the Bible. Our choice is not between ‘no traditions of men’ and ‘the traditions of men’; but rather which traditions did Christ and the Apostles establish?

  3. What are a couple of your favorite books on agrarianism?


    The more I think about it, the harder it is to answer your question. I’ve been planning to add a page called “Contrarians,” which will describe books and other resources that have helped me see beyond the conventional wisdom in particular areas—certainly there will be a lot of agrarian books on that page. But what I’ve learned about agrarianism in the past few years has been pieced together from many sources, making it hard to recommend a couple of favorites.

    That said, for a picture of agrarian life I find myself turning to two places: Wendell Berry’s fiction, especially the novels Jayber Crow and Hannah Fowler; and the Little House series. For agrarian philosophy, the book I like best as a whole is Berry’s Home Economics, although there are individual Berry essays scattered about (e.g. “The Agrarian Standard”) that are probably better yet.

    Perhaps I could comment on this in more detail if you’d be willing to share the specifics of your struggles?


    I wouldn’t say that I’m struggling with anything, just curious. Some of the matters affect me to some degree, most don’t; none are causing me any grief. I didn’t name the matters I’m looking at because, at least for now, it’s more likely that I would offend people than edify them if I laid out the specifics. But that may change as I learn more.


  4. Randall,
    It might help if you had the articles about Anabaptists that Rick and I were referring to. It’s an 8 or 9 part series, but well worth the read. I posted it a few days ago, but messed up my link… I’ll try again.

    Hopefully that will work. If you will read it, you will see that it points out many of the things to which you are referring, but focuses on what we can learn from the Anabaptists and the way they lived their Christianity. Quite honestly, those of us in the Western church have a lot to learn about the Christian walk, and they set some good examples on how to care for one another.

    It also seems from what you said that you missed Rick’s point with the quote. As I read it, his point was that people often try to justify things biblically that can’t be. An instance that I went through personally (I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes; I’m just trying to give an example): We had a pastor that believed that membership in a local church was a requirement for a Christian. If you weren’t a church member, you were out from under protection and cast into the path of Satan. He based this on 1 Cor. 5… we won’t go there. When pressed to present a scripture that backed up his belief about church membership, he hemmed and hawed and then said… I don’t know of one. Yet he actively preached that church membership was necessary. Rick’s point, as I took it, was that many base beliefs on things that are extra-biblical, yet promote them as if they are based solely on scripture.

  5. Rick,
    Thanks for the direction…. apparently we were posting at the same time.

    I ended up printing out all of your Lost Tools articles and found them very good and thought provoking. Immediately following reading all of your articles, I re-read Dave’s (which I also printed out). I am in a flurry of deep thought in regards to what you both have written. Gene (my husband) has been reading your articles, now that I’m willing to share them, and is getting a lot out of them as well. We are contemplating how to implement what we feel is important to do, with the limitations we are working under at this time.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us and for the encouragement you give.

  6. I am not theologian…but we had some of these questions a few years ago…and GOD has taken us in a direction I would never have sought or dreamed. When we want truth more than to be right…then HE honors that. There are some excellent teaching rooms on the weekends especially on Paltalk (Christian room area)….we listen most weekends. Well worth the time. One person who is a radio personality said once that the times he had found he was wrong was when he did not take the scripture literally enough. Something to that. We have such excellent tools for computer these days that allow going into the original meanings, of the the original language of the scripture…helps so much. I do not know how to use them much, but my hubby does, so he researches whenever we have some questions.

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