Do what the experts say…

In all areas of our lives, we live under the constant direction of expert opinions. Just read any newspapers – the headlines are quite revealing: experts comment on politics, experts give their opinion on the market, experts advise us how to raise our kids, tell us what to eat (or what not to eat), how to live longer, how to deal with stress, how to invest our money, how to improve our sex lives….

expert

Have you ever wondered where are all these experts coming from? And who made them the experts? And what if “experts” don’t agree? Who defines the rules for someone to be an expert? Is there a special diploma required? Or does personal experience make an expert? How do I know that the person behind the advice is a bona fide expert or a self-appointed “specialist” or a quack or an impostor, trying to sell me something?

Life has become more complex in the last few generations and faced with complex decisions in a complex system, it is only natural that we crave the advice of “those who should be in the know”, the experts to make it easier for us to decide on important things in our lives. But we have to get better at vetting the expertise that presents itself to us, sometimes through media, often through creative and aggressive marketing.

When at university, I had researched and written a paper on the use of scientific expertise in policy-making. The most serious area where you require expertise, right? They NEED to get it right, especially in our times of evidence-based policy making, so that we don’t end up with the opposite, that is “policy-based evidence making”.
Well, it turns out, that in most cases, it is still quite a gamble to identify reliable and independent experts, and then even more of a gamble using their expertise well.

I am sure this is not going to be the last post on experts I make, so for now, let us look at criteria we should use when looking for experts (on almost anything). I would say, that there are at least five basic rules to follow:

  1. Do your research – if you are looking for an expert in an area, whose advice you will follow, it probably means you are not an expert in the area yourself. It would be easier to just find an expert to tell you what to think and be done with it, right? Wrong. If this is someone who will affect your life (diet, health, money, etc.) you need to do your research a bit, read, look online, ask friends, so that you put your trust in the right hands. Unfortunately, as well as scientific advice does not take away the responsibility of policy-makers in public life, finding an expert does not take away your responsibility to choose and make the decision that will then affect your life. You are the one who will choose to have a treatment or not, to invest your money or to buy the house…not the expert.
  2. Beware of media endorsement – I will sound old school here, but I sincerely believe that the world used to be easier to understand through media – on politics, we would trust the mainstream media, who would have one of two main political analysts who would “tell us what to think”. A newspaper could be trusted to provide – more or less – objective information… and there were no or only a few competing sources of information. So if a doctor came on the air and talked about vaccines against anything (flu, cervical cancer, hepatitis), it was a public health message and it was important and trustworthy. To make it inside the media, the message had to be “checked”somehow, or at least that was our expectation. Today, in situations where there are whole talk shows or advertising masquerading as information, where people get a lot of their knowledge about the world from social media and ridiculous hoaxes, this intuitive mediatic stamp on “expertise” has become worthless or almost. Privately owned newspapers print politically biased information, to steer public opinion left or right, and with so much to choose from, one ends up reading or watching the media that most comforts one in one’s already held views or stops watching/reading altogether. Unfortunately, although the media has changed, our attitude to media did not really change and we have the tendency to easily believe something because it was in the papers or on the telly. And this is particularly true for the older generations. There is not really a solution to this, other than keeping an open mind and being aware of potential bias, so taking everything with a pinch of salt as the saying goes. Not everything one sees on a screen is true – and there are documentaries on TV, Netflix and YouTube that make me scream with frustration, there are hundreds of seemingly official websites where gurus with no appropriate training or background give advice on anything from home births to “curing” cancer or even homosexuality.
  3. Seek formal education and specialisation – I will maybe sound as a pedant, but one of the first criteria is formal education. Check the profiles of the experts! At work, you would not recruit a cartoonist to design a highway bridge (they both draw for living, right, so that’s close enough)… so why do you trust you health and medical decisions to someone who doesn’t have a medical degree ? And if the decision is important, do your background checks thoroughly… We are also living in a world where a multitude of private schools turn out hundreds of so-called “experts” per year with no other real qualifications other than having paid the school fees. Also, in many areas today, there is so much specialisation in research, that a generalist may not be able to offer expert advice on things relating to a more specialised area… such as a european GP on genetic issues or autoimmune disorders or for example tropical diseases etc. “Close enough” should not be enough, if you have the choice.
  4. Question the motive – or to say it in another way – conflict of interest. This one is tricky and is linked to the issues above. As well as political pieces written by a journalist working for a newspaper owned by a known populist are to be read with care, medical advice by doctors on pay roll of big pharmaceutical or agrofood industry companies are to be taken with caution. This does not mean that they are false or harmful, only that they MAY be biased in favour of their employer or his/their interest. Of course, because of the specialisation, it is increasingly hard to find entirely “objective” and “independent” as well as knowledgeable experts on issues such as genetically modified crops or foodstuffs or food additives, who would have not at some time in the past worked with or for the industry. The reason is simple – to be able to study the issue, they had to work with those who make them – and the industry also looks for expertise. However, I find that this rule allows one to eliminate the most blatant “marketing” ploys and steer clear of the worst cases…
  5. Reputation/Confirmation/Word of mouth – from people you actually know and where you could check that it “worked for them”. This approach has of course its limits – diets and medical issues are one of them – what is appropriate for one person can’t always be adapted to another. But a second opinion from a doctor you trust, your family doctor, or another medical professional you trust could be the key for example.

As I said before, the bad news is that the responsibility always lies with you in the end. Not with the expert. And that even big, trusted and formal institutions can make mistakes… and that expertise, linked to scientific research evolves and therefore changes.

As this is a subject that I find fascinating and present in all areas of our lives, I think you too may want to browse some additional resources on this issue:

To watch:

  1. Thank you for smoking, a funny/shocking comedy about the tobacco industry and other things…
  2. John Oliver on Dr.Oz and an update on Dr. Oz
  3. Les vendeurs de maladie  Cash investigation on Big pharma

And to read (just a tiny selection):

  1. Experts on Wiki
  2. The Paradox of Scientific Expertise

And listen:

  1. We only trust experts who agree with us

 

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