If you’ve ever been on the internet, you’ve noticed that some things are popular, and other things aren’t. The popular ones have something in common. It’s not quality, or importance, or accuracy, but novelty.
An example of this is Moby-Dick. It’s a timeless novel by an acclaimed writer, and most people haven’t read it. The complete text is free on the internet. You could be reading it right now. But are you? And how many of your Facebook friends shared Moby-Dick today? Probably not more than one or two.
Obsession with novelty has been called “neophilia.” The term was used as early as 1965 in a story by J.D. Salinger, who was apparently wary of it. But being attracted to novelty doesn’t necessarily mean readers are dumb or attention-deficient. To some degree, novelty-seeking is evolutionarily adaptive and associated with good health.
Readers are trained to expect and value newness in what they read. I can’t blame people who see in the term news an implicit promise to deliver something new. When a story fails in that, comments flood in, like “This is not news!” and “This writer looks like he’s 12!” and “The eclipse is real!”
Neophilia is a problem for science, though. And especially the sort of science pertaining to nutrition. Demand for newness leads writers and publishers to focus on narratives that upend conventional wisdom. If new research doesn’t change or challenge the way readers think about the world, why is it a story worth publishing? Eggs are in, and now they’re gone. Butter? It’s back. Every six weeks, The New York Times is legally obligated to tell us either that breakfast isn't important or that skipping it causes death.