There’s a fascinating article in the New York Times about something social scientists call a cascade. It’s a process by which one expert’s wrong opinion spreads to other experts until they all believe it must be true because all the experts say so.
It makes you wonder if there are cascades in action right now that are fooling entire fields of experts. (My regular readers know where this is heading.)
As I understand a cascade, bad information originates from one source, spreads until it becomes common knowledge, and any dissenting data is ignored. That’s very different from, for example, the theory of evolution, where many experts are creating mountains of confirming evidence. There’s a big difference between one guy being wrong and thousands of experts being wrong about a thousand different things. So the theory of evolution doesn’t fit the cascade hypothesis, right?
But consider this. The INTERPRETATION for all the evidence of evolution goes back to one guy: Darwin. If he got that wrong, and no one at the time had a better explanation, you have all the conditions for a cascade.
Here’s a little thought experiment. Suppose Darwin’s original theory had been that evolution was directed by aliens who had visited Earth in its early days. He’d have plenty of circumstantial evidence for that theory because you can find all sorts of ancient wonders that seem too advanced for the societies of the time. And the evidence of alien involvement wouldn’t be much worse than his original scant evidence for evolution itself, which involved staring at bird beaks and the like. All the strongest evidence for evolution came after Darwin.
Imagine Darwin hypothesizing that the pyramids were too difficult for humans to build, so aliens must have helped. By the time scientists figured out how humans could have built pyramids with clever engineering, experts in the field of “alien evolution” would have a thousand more examples of alien influence that had not yet been debunked. The alien influence part of the explanation could easily cascade.
With the hypothetical alien theory of evolution, even the gaps in the fossil record would seem like confirmation. Of course there would be gaps, because the aliens manipulated our DNA and caused the changes to happen in spurts. And the aliens only visited every million years or so.
Now imagine what happens to the lone scientist who proposes that something called natural selection is the mechanism for evolution. The common wisdom in my imaginary scenario is that aliens did it. The poor bastard with his idea of natural selection would be ostracized from the field.
I’m not saying aliens caused evolution. And I’m not saying the current theory of evolution is wrong because of a cascade. But it’s a safe bet that SOMETHING you consider just as true as evolution is the result of a cascade and we’ll find out later.