Why We’re Suckers for Fads, Lies and Pseudoscience

fad   noun   ’fad   : a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.

Bristol County District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter – a man sworn to uphold the laws of the state of Massachusetts – dropped all criminal charges against two environmental activists facing two years in prison for blocking a 40,000 ton fuel shipment to a coal-burning power plant, according to the Boston Globe.

The reason the D.A. gave was stunning.

“Because of my sympathy for their position, I was in a dilemma. I do believe they’re right, that we’re at a crisis point with climate change,” he said.

The Globe showed a picture of Sutter outside the courthouse clutching a Rolling Stone article on climate change called, “A Call to Arms.”

If I were cynical, I might suggest that Sutter was ginning up popular support for political purposes. But even if that were true, it would only further the point that we are now making laws and allowing others to break laws based on a popular belief that may someday turn out to be nothing more than a global fad.

If the very notion that manmade global climate change may not exist or, if it does, poses absolutely no threat – immediate or otherwise – to any of us makes you break out in hives or sends you into a blind rage, you’re certainly not alone. You should see how red in the face Al Gore gets when the goose that lays his golden eggs is threatened.

We are living in the golden age of fads. And while we tend to think of fads as relatively short-lived and harmless, the timeframe between their sudden appearance and precipitous demise can actually be decades long. And fads can certainly vary from the inconsequential to the enormously destructive.

Consider the size and persistence of the self-help or self-improvement genre fueled by our neurotic, compulsive, irrational and insatiable desire to be more loved, happy, inspired, influential, productive, successful and accepted than we really are.

In an era of unparalleled scientific and technological sophistication, the pervasiveness of mystical remedies and magical cures such as homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, vitamins, nutritional supplements, colon cleansing and detoxing is striking.

What about our diets? For decades we were told that saturated fat is bad for us. Now we learn that was all based on botched studies and pseudoscience. If you live in Hollywood and you’re not vegan, vegetarian, gluten free or at least paleo, you’re an outcast. And yet, unnecessary cosmetic surgery is all the rage even though, at least to my eye, it makes people less attractive.

And how about all the weight loss systems, diet systems, workout systems, nutrition bars, vitamin waters, club memberships and fitness bands? It’s ironic that the more obsessed we are about health and fitness, the more obese and unhealthy we actually become.

Even the business world can’t escape the epidemic of fads. We’re experiencing an unprecedented boom in management and leadership crazes from employee engagement, emotional intelligence and personal branding to the mythical gender pay gap and an overemphasis on diversity and inclusion that threatens meritocracy.

Everybody’s a CEO. Everybody’s an entrepreneur. Everybody’s an influencer. Everybody’s unique, special.

Who can keep track of all the things that are supposed to cause cancer or fry our brains? Wi-Fi radio signals. Microwave ovens. Plastic bottles. Aspartame. Mercury in fillings. Toxins. What toxins? The ones in our bodies. But what are they? Don’t ask stupid questions. They’re just toxins. You’ve got to flush them out.

What about our kids? The anti-vaccine fad based on a completely unsubstantiated rumor that vaccines cause autism has brought back diseases once thought to be eradicated such as whooping cough and measles. And one in five high school students has been diagnosed with ADHD. We’re doping them up with enough amphetamines to turn us all into speed freaks.

Meanwhile, we’ve spent billions on education reform to fix the problem of underperforming poor, inner city minorities. Unfortunately, schools can’t do what families won’t do. Government can’t fix cultural problems. Having spent decades reforming a supposedly broken system, now we really do have a broken system.

Don’t even get me started on the corrosiveness of political correctness and the supposed war on women, minorities and LGBT people.

So what’s causing all this hysteria? Why is our culture suddenly overrun by so many persistent and damaging fads? A confluence of three factors.

First is an evolutionary theory called the spiral of silence. People with views they perceive are unpopular remain silent for fear of being isolated. It’s based on the survival imperative of safety in numbers that applies to all pack animals, including humans.

Second is the Internet or, more specifically, Web 2.0 and social media. Now any fad can go viral overnight, reinforced by a million voices and blogs. It turns out that the spiral of silence effect is far more pronounced on social media – even offline among those that frequent Twitter and Facebook, according to a recent Pew Research and Rutgers University study.

Lastly, we’re all so disengaged and distracted, spending an average of 10 hours a day between TV and online, that our miniscule attention spans are more or less limited to sound bites. We simply don’t have the time or inclination to question or verify anything anymore.

Those factors have created a perfect storm, not just for cultural conformity but also for societal norms to be more and more based on fads, pseudoscience and misinformation.

The problem, of course, is that anytime we build on top of flawed assumptions we end up with a house of cards. That’s why the scientific method is so critical to the advancement of civilization. It’s the only truly unassailable mechanism for ensuring that we build stable structures on top of solid foundations, so to speak.

There is of course one other incontrovertible doctrine: the U.S. Constitution. Once we abandon the scientific method and the laws of the land in favor of fads and lies – once we lose the courage to stand up to groupthink and challenge the status quo – that’s when our civilization begins to weaken and unravel.