Scott Adams referred to an article in the New York Times in this morning's blog. He used evolution as an example in explaining the article, but I would like to look at 2 or 3 other examples to which it could be applied. The article itself is very informative, itself using the debate over the benefits of low-fat diets to illustrate the point. I would highly recommend reading it...
NY Times - Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus
So basically what seems to happen is that a scientist or other notable person makes a discovery, observes something, or comes up with a theory. Other scientists then follow his lead, adding their voices to the cause, and before long a significant consensus is built, not based on scientific fact, but simply on the idea that, that many smart people can't be wrong.
So let's look at a few examples:
I posted an entry yesterday on Global Warming. If you reviewed some of the supporting material I provided, you will no doubt have seen that the initial idea about the temperature change was from a graph showing average temperatures with a sharp increase in the early 80's. Recently it was found that a change was made in the way average temperatures were calculated, this change however was not retroactively applied to temperatures prior to the change, and the result was a graph showing irrefutable evidence that the planet is warming.
I have found that human nature seems to see what it wants to see if it approaches a problem with a presumed idea of the outcome. I had a co-worker years ago come and ask me to speak with the boss about a potential idea. I forget the specifics, but lets say the employee thought making widget A was a good idea, but felt that the boss would just shoot it down. We entered the office. Coworker presented the idea that widget A would be a good idea. The boss agreed. The coworker then provided every possible reason as to why widget A was a bad idea, and had no chance of succeeding. The boss listened, and then agreed with him, that it might not be in the best interests of the company. We left the office, and co-worker turned to me, and said something to the effect of... "Did you see how he just shot my idea down? He does it all the time."
Something else where this happens is religeon. A significant leader proposes an idea, whether from a divine source or his own brain. Followers assume he speaks for God and start to teach it as coming from a divine source, and before long, a simple musing or idea turns into a rigid doctrine. Some years ago, a leader in the denomination with which I affiliate made a comment on preparing to be a missionary... He said that it required a certain amount of preparation, and that you could not base your efectiveness purely on "how many kills you had achieved in a video game." He got some good laughs, and I think the intent of his message was not that video games were bad, but that the preparation was needed in other area's of life as well. Last year, our local leader decided that it was innappropriate for any member of the congregation to engage in video game tournaments, citing the point made by the afforementioned leader. Blindly everyone followed - except me! My house went up for sale shorly thereafter! I'd prefer not to live amongst men who abuse their presumed authority and a bunch of sheep who follow them blindly, but that's beside the point!
The more I think about this, the more I can see it in the world around me... Politics, Academics, Sports, and the list goes on and on.
I think the key is getting people to think for themselves. When an idea is articulated by a person, that idea should be judged on it's own merits, rather than on the merits of the person who proposes it.