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sometimes eminently qualified, spout medical information and advice that is not evidence-based, can be hopelessly out of date, and sometimes is not even consistent with common sense.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word in the ear of the University Dean to make it clear that if candidate B were to be appointment, funding would be withdrawn.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.