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?”