When crowds aren’t wise: the low-fat diet cascade.
So everything we know about fat and dieting is wrong. At least that’s what this article in the NY Times asserts, and its historical overview of how we got there is fascinating. Basically, the demonization of fat in our diets by the scientific community turns out to have been based upon dubious data and has never been corroborated by subsequent research. But because scientists were simply agreeing with other scientists without doing their own fact checking, something what social scientists call a “cascade” formed. And then the American public bought billions of dollars of low-fat foods and they still gained weight and had heart attacks.
As a big fan of James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”, I’m interested in how this article shows how supposedly wise crowds can also be dumb. In “The Wisdom of Crowds”, one of the key features of a wise crowd is independence of thought and opinion. Cascades form when something called “social proof” occurs, which Surowiecki defines as “the tendency to assume that if lots of people are doing something or believe something, there must be a good reason why”. Especially if those people are respected scientific peers.
A bigger question is whether our modern distributed data networks (i.e., the Web) will make cascades such as this more prevalent, or will diminish their longevity. My thought is that both are likely to occur. The fact that Web 2.0 diminishes the sole authority of “experts” (see Wikipedia) and mitigates the penalties for disagreement (read for peaceful conformity in any forum or chat room), the potential for false cascades to run unchecked for a long time will drop. However, the same medium which mitigates the length of false cascades also allows them to start fairly quickly to begin with.
Cascades are something that all who are interested in consumer trends, insights, and beliefs need to be aware of and be ready to react to. Especially if you want to know how long consumers will be interested in that low-fat cookie you have on the shelves.