Yes, there is a study of cascading stupidity


AS I SIT PARALYZED with fear over a national election of Armageddon proportion, it is no comfort to realize that even my vote for mayor was for naught. City Hall has gone … well, it has gone stupid.

I don’t use the word lightly. Stupid is when a councilman mentions offhand it would be a fine thing if the city attracted more investment and suddenly there is a tax-driven downtown boondoggle whose silent partners will eventually buy it at a bankruptcy auction for one-third its $250 million cost.

Or when a councilman suggests that the police could use a bit more supervision and suddenly there is an unelected citizen board in charge of law enforcement and strangers are painting BLM slogans on the walls of the bank.

Lucky for us there is an actual field of research on stupid policy. It is called “cascade analysis,” the study of poor decisions caused when available information is so limited it gives the false impression that everyone is on the same page.

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other,” is the way the philosopher Eric Hoffer explained it in an earlier era. An updated example is from the Chicago University where professors Cass Sunstein and Timur Kurn studied the famous Love Canal “disaster.”

A leak was found at an abandoned waste dump in upstate New York, a leak determined to be too small to constitute a health threat. Nonetheless, a local hysteric, Lois Gibbs, imagined she and her neighbors were being poisoned. People started reporting random illnesses they believed were caused by the nearby the waste dump. Newspapers and politicians went ape.

The ensuing cascade is described by Vincent Harinam and David Kopel, writing for Quillette:

“Soon, anyone who dared to question the unscientific assertions that Love Canal was a disaster was vilified for not caring about sick children. The government evacuated everyone from the Love Canal neighborhood. Hysterical reporting in local and national media spread the terror.”

The authors link more recent cascades to the dynamics of the new digital and broadcast journalism where “clicks” and viewers are more important than subscriptions:

“While there is plenty of political bias in the news media, the controlling bias is viewership bias. If Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon could attract higher ratings (and thus, more advertising revenue) by reporting accurately, they would. But instead, it’s more profitable to trigger availability cascades.”

The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize with an “informational” cascade, pegging the beginning of the nation at 1619, the year a slave ship landingon the East Coast. Overlooked, however, was that slavery was not only endemic throughout the world back then but among the indigenous on this continent.

“The economy of the Comanche empire, based in central Texas, was based on human predation and the slave trade; the Comanches sold captured Indians, Mexicans, New Mexicans and other Americans to any willing buyer,” the article notes.

And there is the “reputational” cascade on gun crime. The Pew Research Center reports that even though more than half of Americans believe that gun crimes have increased they in fact are down 49 percent from a 1993 peak.

“Availability cascades can produce grossly inaccurate perceptions of problems. The less we think for ourselves, and the more we go along with whatever information is available, the more distorted our understanding of the world becomes,” the Quillette writers conclude.

In my little corner of the world, a cascade typically begins when someone on council rediscovers a long-standing, intractable problem for which they demand immediate resolution. Normally, such an assertion would blend harmlessly into a larger, prioritized, more diverse and thereby more constrained discussion.

Without a local media willing to put the problem in context, however, or weigh costs and benefits, available information is in short supply. The cascade picks up speed, tumbles over the cliff and crashes onto the “solutions” below.

Given that process, the rare public-policy success is the one that never tempts a cascade by coming before council or crossing an editor’s desk.

Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to awoods@

No posts to display