Mass Dissemination of Binary Information - friday 2010-04-16 2145 last modified 2010-04-21 1253
Categories: Nerdy
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Not the internet, precisely. I've been thinking about this for a bit, and, while late to the game, I was happy to come across an actual model for this pattern. An economist discusses how general fads, particularly fads based on weak, bad, or non-existent science, are transmitted and perpetuated throughout society when presented as binary options.

In the lead up to the below, Dr. Ivo Welch outlines an example of arriving at the optimum by competing offerings of a no low-fat diet and a 100% low-fat diet, arriving by experimenting with competing percentages - 10%, 15%, something else - of low-fat diet and assessing which trend gives the best results. Then:

What cascades have done is to show that as long as the main choice is binary, this logic [of arriving at an optimum] won’t hold. There is no strong corrective force any longer. I don’t really have the choice of going 50% low-fat diet. I have the choice of endorsing it or not endorsing it. No one cares about the details of how I am endorsing it. They can only easily observe whether I am for it or against it. If I follow, then those coming after me can no longer learn anything (easily at least) from what I have been choosing as my recommendation.

Dr. Welch in a New York Times Tierneylabs blog post.

It's easier to report that saturated fat is bad for you than to go into the specifics of what a study actually finds, or wait for independent verification or nullification to get a broader sense of the scientific community's take on the study. A quick, tantalizing scoop, and American (and world?) society goes on a three-decade bender of condemnation of one minor component of the human diet, giving an entire generation the misapprehension that dietary animal fat is the leading cause of heart disease.

Which, it turns out, is probably entirely unrelated to heart disease. To the extent that it is dietary, in this survey of the field, Slate points the finger at foods with a high glycemic index: processed carbohydrates. White bread (maybe - please, read the whole article).

And yet the wrong idea is so entrenched that even casual assertions to the contrary are taken as a joke. Dietary fat and heart disease may be one of those things our descendants ridicule us for, like little green Martians and spontaneous generation. Knowing how information cascades can perpetuate bad ideas, there must be a way to employ them to perpetuate good ideas.

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