As cultures evolve, they sometimes come to embrace not only information of good practical value, but also assumptions that are sheer nonsense, leading to behaviours that are equally nonsensical. That is, cultures often get things wrong. Sometimes these cultural delusions result in activities that cause unnecessary distress in humans, or unnecessary damage to local ecosystems. There are countless examples of cultural maladaptation in human history.
Fortunately, humans have the ability, through their capacity for culture itself, to bring culture back on track when it goes off the rails. Nowadays, when people come to perceive the biological or social consequences of culturally-inspired activities as undesirable, a period of discussion and debate ensues about the causes of the problem and possible remedies. Eventually new understanding can bring about modifications in cultural assumptions and priorities, leading to appropriate changes in human activities. This process is referred to as cultural reform.
Cultural reform is often quite complicated, involving prolonged interactions between different interest groups in society. A key role is sometimes played initially by minority groups, occasionally by single individuals, who start the ball rolling by drawing attention to an unsatisfactory state of affairs. An example is Rachel Carson who, in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring, drew attention to the insidious and destructive ecological impacts of certain synthetic pesticides.
Almost invariably these expressions of concern coming from reformers are promptly contradicted by others, the counter-reformers, who set out to block the reform process. This predictable backlash often involves, but is not restricted to, representatives of vested interests who believe that the proposed reforms will be to their disadvantage. They are likely to argue that the problem does not exist, or that it
has been grossly exaggerated, and they try to ridicule the reformers by calling them alarmists, fanatics, scaremongers and prophets of doom. Nowadays some of the counter-reform forces are extraordinarily powerful. For a detailed discussion in the context of tobacco smoking, CFCs and climate change – see Merchants of doubt by N. Oreskes and E.M. Conway (2010).
Eventually, if the reformers are successful, a change comes about in the dominant culture, and members of governmental bureaucracies and other organisations set about working out ways and means of achieving the necessary social changes. Their efforts may still be hindered by the stalling tactics of counter-reformers.