World's wisdom turns upside-down

Beliefs once thought to be rock-solid now shift like the sand

Ideas: Unorthodoxy

September 01, 2002|By Reed Johnson | Reed Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This report just in: Everything you know is wrong. Sorry to break the news, but don't feel bad - tomorrow you'll probably believe something completely different.

Why, only a few weeks ago, it seems, we all knew exactly what was right and what to think. Then, we held these truths to be self-evident: CEOs were civic role models, the safest place for your kid to play was the front yard, and only fools and knaves didn't have their life savings in the stock market.

Pasta and bread were good for you; red meat was bad. Estrogen replacement therapy was heaven-sent for women of a certain age, and arthroscopic knee surgery was a miracle cure for scores of arthritis sufferers.

How'd we know all this? Conventional wisdom, of course - a venerable stockpile of essential suppositions, eternal verities and time-tested beliefs that we rely on to muddle through our otherwise clueless daily lives.

But today we know better. Today we're enlightened. Today we hold these truths to be self-evident: CEOs are scoundrels. The safest place for your kids to play is an underground bunker with armed guards, lest they join the recent wave of child-napping victims. And only fools and knaves don't have their life savings in bonds and T-bills.

Today, we know that too many carbs can kill you, but big, juicy steaks may be wonderfully healthful. Hormone replacement therapy can cause breast cancer, heart attacks, blood clots and strokes; and arthroscopic surgery may be no more salutary than a pinprick.

Thank goodness that's settled - except that it's not. Because in these dazed and confused times, nothing has a shorter shelf life than conventional wisdom.

"It's almost as if the problem with conventional wisdom is that it really isn't," says E. David Sosa, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. "If it really is wisdom, then there's no problem with it being conventional. The problem is when it's not really wisdom."

So what is it then? Call it orthodoxy, truisms, dogma, the collective super-ego, urban legends or old wives' tales. The tribal gods are toppling. Everywhere you look, conventional wisdom is under siege as the country frets about whether to buy! buy! buy! or sell! sell! sell!; whether to worry more about global warming or dirty bombs; and whether to ask the waitress to hold the rice pilaf or the blue cheese dressing.

On Wall Street, irrational exuberance has given way to irrational pessimism. On Main Street, there's a feeling that today's "sure thing" could be tomorrow's bum steer, that the prevailing "common sense" could morph overnight into nonsense.

In times past, conventional wisdom was steady and reliable, if exclusive. When Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term in his influential book The Affluent Society (1958), he used it to designate those ironclad economic principles and political catechisms passed down from generation to generation like heirlooms. Conventional wisdom was the dogmatic foundation of 20th-century capitalism, as unshakable and impenetrable as Gibraltar.

By contrast, some say, today's conventional wisdom suffers from the opposite curse: It's faddish and fleeting. It makes us not slaves to tradition but dupes to every passing intellectual fad.

In his book Untruth - Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong (Random House, 2001), journalist Robert J. Samuelson argues that conventional wisdom is "increasingly an act of intellectual or political merchandising." The media's need for market share, he writes, has led to a "pervasive exaggeration of both problems and solutions, because that's what grabs attention," a process that Samuelson calls "untruth." This "common distortion of reality," he emphasizes, is not "typically the result of deliberate lies" but of hyperbolic thinking.

Americans, of course, have always been as famous for their skepticism as their idealism. Wary of economic quackery and political snake oil, we pride ourselves on our flinty pragmatism, our resistance to the kind of trendy intellectual placebos that we imagine are the daily bread of places like Paris.

At the same time, Americans have a near-religious faith in progress and the potential for self-improvement, and a corresponding belief that the present and future are superior to the past.

"We tend to oscillate between simply accepting whatever people tell us or kind of cynically dismissing whatever we hear," says Joel Best, a professor and chair of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware in Newark and author of Damned Lies and Statistics - Untangling Numbers From the Media, Politicians, and Activists (University of California Press, 2001).

Even when conventional wisdom is supposedly grounded in cold, hard data, like statistics (or, perhaps, especially when it is), we've been trained to distrust it, Best says. "There's an obvious fondness that we have for simplicity," he says. "Practically every week we hear that coffee causes cancer, and then the next week it doesn't. And I think this leads to a lot of frustration and confusion and suspicion of numbers."

So are there any helpful hints for separating "bad" conventional wisdom from "good"?

"Big, round numbers are red flags," Best says. "I think that announcements of general trends, and particularly announcements of radical transformations, are red flags. I mean, how likely is it that the world is radically transformed? If you can't get information about where the number comes from, that's a red flag."

Reed Johnson is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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