Why ‘experts’ are sometimes not to be trusted

My last post on Friday discussed some science which demonstrates the superiority of carbohydrate restricted diets in the management of diabetes. Yes, the authors of this study call for more research to be done before we can confidently recommend such diets. It occurs to me that at least some of the reticence that is apparent here relates to the fact that when a concept goes against conventional ‘wisdom’, doctors and scientists generally require way more evidence to convince them of its merits than if it already accepted.

It’s not uncommon to find ‘experts’, sometimes eminently qualified, spout medical information and advice that is not evidence-based, can be hopelessly out of date, and sometimes is not even consistent with common sense. So, how can it be that intelligent individuals, usually focused on a specific area of expertise and at the pinnacle of their profession can have opinions that are, when viewed with some objectivity, hard to justify?

I am sometimes asked this question myself ” often during or after a lecture. My response usually makes reference to the fact that research establishments and University departments require money, and this often comes at least in part from industry. And it would be naïve to imagine, I think, that to a certain degree at least, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Essentially, academics may be selected at least in part because it is believe they can be relied upon to maintain the status quo and not do or say anything that is going to jeopardise industry profits and funding.

So, imagine for a moment a cardiovascular department in a University is looking to fill a professorial chair. And imagine a substantial part of the funding for the relevant department comes from a drug company that make statin (cholesterol-reducing) drugs. Now, imagine there are two candidates for this post: candidate A who is known to be staunchly supportive of statins; and candidate B who has publicly expressed doubts about them, and has suggested they are not as effective and are generally more toxic than we have been led to believe.

Now think for a moment who, all other things being equal, is most likely to get the job? You might imagine that learning of the candidates, the drug company who funds the department might have quiet word in the ear of the University Dean to make it clear that if candidate B were to be appointment, funding would be withdrawn. Without the funding, there may be no professorial chair or department at all.

This is of course an entirely hypothetical situation, but believe me when I tell you that there is considerable potential for just this sort of thing to happen in the real world. And because of it, it can sometimes be very difficult to get what approximates as the truth from an ‘expert’, however eminently qualified.

Part of the reason for writing about this is that I very recently came across a piece on the web in which University of Michigan psychiatrist Randolph Nesse explore his belief that Truth does not reside with smart university experts. To see this piece, click here, and then scroll down to the relevant piece of search on the page for ‘Randolph’. Here’s how Dr Nesse describes the process by which original thought is stifled in many learning establishments: �what if one wants to hire someone doing truly innovative work, someone who might challenge established opinions? Faculty committees intervene to ensure that most positions go to people just about like themselves, and the Dean asks how much grant overhead funding a new faculty member will bring in. No one with new ideas, much less work in a new area or critical of established dogmas, can hope to get through this fine sieve. If they do, review committees are waiting. And so, by a process of unintentional selection, diversity of thought and topic is excluded. If it still sneaks in, it is purged. The disciplines become ever more insular. And universities find themselves unwittingly inhibiting progress and genuine intellectual engagement.

Dr Nesse goes on to lament: Where can we look to find what is true? Smart experts in universities are a place to start, but if we could acknowledge how hard it is for truth and its pursuers to find safe university lodgings, and how hard it is for even the smartest experts to offer objective conclusions, we could begin to design new social structures that would support real intellectual innovation and engagement.

This does not mean to say that professors and other academics should be held in contempt and mistrusted. However, it does mean that they shouldn’t be, just by virtue of their ‘expert’ status, be automatically trusted either.

9 Responses to Why ‘experts’ are sometimes not to be trusted

  1. Mo 18 January 2008 at 7:41 pm #

    This is a very extreme analogy here, but it’s a bit like Nazism. It doesn’t have to be malicious, rather that all you have to do is turn off your brain and nod at anything handed down by authority.
    I believe the most sincere people in the medical world are patients; they want the truth and can help find it. No statistics and marketing gimmicks.

  2. Terry 19 January 2008 at 12:53 am #

    Institutional conformism (IC) is every bit as contemptible as political conformism (PC). Institutional and political apparatchiks put their own material self-advancement above any regard for the truth or the needs of the democratic majority.

    Democratise the institutional dictatorships, all of them, everywhere – universities, colleges, schools, quangos, et al. How? Demand secret ballots on everything that matters! Why not? It’s democracy, stupid!

  3. Outis 19 January 2008 at 2:42 am #

    Everything said in Dr Briffa’s piece is spot on. I know endless instances where concerns about funding have influenced academic appointments.

    Academic freedom? Ha! The disciplined factory is the normative concept in our society. The (pre-1992) university has almost become a factory (products delivered to funder’s specification.) The post-1992 university, and I have taught in three, always was a factory. That’s why the Thatcher made them universities – to swamp the independently minded academy.

  4. Bill Cockerill 19 January 2008 at 10:05 am #

    “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. ” Max Planck

    As well as the stifle of academia described by John you have the problem that someone’s whole career could be invested in a view or set of hypotheses that are no longer true. Anyone would struggle to give these up if it devalued years of work. Well worth Reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything that describes these battles in every field of science in a very entertaining way.

    Richard Dawkins discusses a similar reluctance with religious believers who fear losing belief as it makes many years of devotion and worship pointless. They discuss priests who have lost their belief but carry on all the same. It’s a career after all!
    You can watch the discussion online here:
    http://richarddawkins.net/article,2025,THE-FOUR-HORSEMEN,Discussions-With-Richard-Dawkins-Episode-1-RDFRS

  5. Steve T 20 January 2008 at 2:01 am #

    This brings to mind the parallels between the early low-fat promoters in the 60′s and 70′s and the current-day global warmists. Remember the statements saying, in effect, “if our hypothesis is correct (and it most assuredly is), we have to do something now via government policy. The science will surely back us up”. The science never did back up the low-fat hypothesis, but it doesn’t seem to matter. We now have the complimentary epidemics of obesity and type-2 diabetes as a legacy of the low fat pimps and their government accomplices.

    Now we’re hearing the same thing – “if our hypothesis is correct (and it most assuredly is), we have to do something now via government policy. The science will surely back us up”. All the same arguments – “the science is settled” comes to mind – but now it’s global warming. Will we ever learn?

    Try to get tenure at an “elite” american university if you don’t tow the line regarding low-fat, evolution, or global warming. Not gonna happen.

    Sorry to inject non-diet related issues here, but I think it ties in perfectly with the story. Join the consensus or die a painful academic death. You don’t have to agree with the opponents of global warming or evolution without at least appreciating their willingness to swim against the current, and pay a heavy academic price for it.

    Steve

  6. Steve 21 January 2008 at 1:54 pm #

    This sounds rather similar to how journalists work within large media corporations and how the result of which leads to bland journlism that conforms to the government line, things of opposition to non existant WMD pre Iraq war.

    A lot of this process is largely invisible and not part of any conspiracy theory, its simply how human systems develop and it suits the large corporations that own them.

    Noam Chomsky’s book ‘The Manufacturing of Consent’ is a gold mine resource for understanding this built in form of self censorship.

  7. Neil 22 January 2008 at 1:53 pm #

    Steve T

    very true. and also about the global warming religion.

    The effect of man made CO2 on the Greenhouse effect is tiny (0.2%) compared with that of Water Vapour (95%). Yet the media coverage ignores Water Vapour. You have to suspect an ulterior motive on the part of those propagating the Global Warming nonsense.

    I suspect a combination of job tenure, research money and not having the balls to admit being wrong comes into the equation somewhere

  8. Pete 25 January 2008 at 12:31 am #

    The trouble is, that this line of thought equally applies to yourself & the studies that you quote, and can lead to an assumption that anyone outside of the ‘system’ is a more valid opinion. Of course these pressures exist, but if you argue that all academics are flawed (or is it only those who disagree with you?) on what basis can science exist?

  9. Dr John Briffa 25 January 2008 at 7:40 am #

    Pete
    “The trouble is, that this line of thought equally applies to yourself & the studies that you quote”

    Yes of course it can. And individuals are obviously entitled to demonstrate where I may have misinterpreted or misrepresented the science.

    “and can lead to an assumption that anyone outside of the ‘system’ is a more valid opinion”.

    I don’t understand why this assumption would be made, Pete. Perhaps you could explain? Either the ideas and science stack up and stand up to scrutiny or they don’t.

    Of course these pressures exist, but if you argue that all academics are flawed (or is it only those who disagree with you?) on what basis can science exist?

    Where, Pete, did I argue that all academics are flawed?

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