Why You Should Be Critical of Self-Proclaimed “Health Experts” Regarding Absolute Statements
Real experts rarely market themselves as such. They are also usually working on their research, not writing blogs.
My title and this blog, at first glance, seems a bit hypocritical. Don’t I have a health blog, and am I not making recommendations? There are subtle differences in what I am warning about, but it is important to note that yes, I make recommendations. That said, I encourage all my readers to find where I have not had caveats regarding the evidence, actively petitioned for certain individuals to not follow something (out of safety or lack of benefit) and otherwise made every attempt to remain balanced. I also encourage everyone reading to call me out on anything you think you see where I disregard this and fall into a pattern of my own warnings. I am not impervious to drinking my own kool-aid. While I make the best efforts to keep skeptics around me to question my train of thought, this is not infallible.
True experts rarely make absolute statements, especially on topics still under debate. Regarding health, this is possibly truer than any other field. When “health experts” typically marketing themselves as “mavericks,” or those marketing themselves as “counter to the corrupt message from the Government/Big Industry etc.” make these bold statements they are often trying to sell you something. They may be using fear to get you to believe something safe is harmless to in turn sell you something to protect yourself from the imagined danger, or they may simply be overstating (or fabricating) the benefits of something they are endorsing. Whether they are intending to deceive is not relevant to the truth. Many of those who fall into this practice wholeheartedly believe everything they say and endorse.
Intent is relevant to how we respond to these statements, and the respect and dialogue we allow and pursue. Personally, I do not believe the majority are purposefully deceitful out of greed. I have met with many of the influencers and drivers in this community, broken bread, and had long conversations. They truly believe in what they are talking about and are often oblivious to the arguments against their position. Most are good people, full of passion. Most are avid readers, seeking truth in the way they know how, trying to get their vision and knowledge out. Most are also highly intelligent individuals who have simply succumbed to compromised thought patterns, propped up by yes men and distorted by a few nasty manipulators. I wrote about this in more detail in last months “100 voices”.
Having an audience by its very nature is a corruption. Virtually everyone has heard the saying “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While I do not believe this in its absolute nature, I believe it is the case at least to an extent, even for those with the best intentions. Even for those whose pursuit is the truth. Especially today with the advances in information gathering, analytics, and backing by marketing teams. Influencers become the influenced. As influencers begin learning about what their audiences respond to, they alter their messages to target a wider crowd.
I believe this is usually done with the best intentions; they begin to distort their message to appeal to their followers under the self justification that they are still creating a net positive effect. The marketing teams behind them encourage this and encourage them to continue to churn out exciting new material and new content. The very motivation to engage an audience and to captivate with an original well intended message becomes perverted into the search to “go further” and “stay on top,” fuelled by expectations of those that have come to rely on the influencers, whether it be for thought or income. This is an incredibly dangerous course, one which almost all fall victim. I implore my readers to warn me of this if I ever go down this road.
Most of us live in echo chambers. We believe what we believe and strengthen these beliefs rather than doubt them because our thoughts are confirmed, strengthened, and supported by everything we hear, read, and watch. In the last several years, this phenomenon has grown more intense with the advent of social media and the progress of targeted media and news. Various platforms inundate us with news articles from what algorithms believe we want to see, and place front and center the friends and influencers we have clicked on the most in the past. We are left seeing only things that reconfirm and strengthen our previous opinions, even when they are factually inaccurate.
As a species we are prone to gravitate to like minded people, and then inevitably disassociate with the thoughts and actions of those furthest from our own. It leads to binary thinking where we perceive issues as black and white. One of my favourite artists has a great song about this. Give Tim Minchin’s “The Fence” a listen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGErC6QQdoc
He ends the track with this (the chorus, ended with “maybe”):
The more you know, the harder you will find it
To make up your mind, it doesn't really matter if you find
You can't see which grass is greener
Chances are it's neither, and either way it's easier
To see the difference when you're sitting on the fence
Cause it's not that simple... Maybe...
In the pre-talk in one of his recorded live shows (linked above), he humorously and accurately jokes that”
“The human race is on a mission to divide things into two clean columns, this pervasive black and whiteism. Everything has to be good or evil or healthy or deadly or natural or chemical… or if you eat these berries or drink this juice you’ll be miraculously healthful and YOU WILL LIVE FOREVER! But if you take this toxin or if you have this vaccine YOU WILL GET CANCER AND DIE or you will get autism and you won’t like hugs. And everything organic and natural is good, ignoring the fact that organic and natural substances include arsenic and poo and crocodiles. And everything chemical is BAD ignoring the fact that EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS. EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS!!!! The day they discover yoga mats are carcinogenic will be the happiest day of my life.”
Years ago, when Tim Minchin recorded this, the anti-science communicators were far more prominent than the skeptic groups debunking them. Today, that is not as much the case and from my perspective the skeptic groups are strong contributors in driving the divide. Even worse, the messaging in many of these communities no longer maintains intellectual honesty. In many ways they are guilty of the same intellectual crimes of the groups they purport to debunk.
I didn’t always believe this was the case. In fact, years ago I was an active skeptic crusader, or “troll”, or whatever you want to call it, under various pseudonyms (and a bit under my own name) and have been banned from many, many “natural” Facebook groups. As the skeptic community changed dramatically for the worse, coupled with me personally meeting and attentively listening to the honest and heartfelt positions of many (most) of the individuals I previously sought to discredit, I have come to change my position and understand both the micro- and macro-reasons for the cultures sweeping through society.
Why Experts Are Quiet
There are a few reasons why true experts in a field, especially in health, are often quiet. There are three in particular that I have identified and while two of them seem to contradict each other, when understanding the ever-increasing specialization which science in general is experiencing, it makes perfect sense.
True Understanding Decreases Confidence
Understanding something too well, and thus obligating oneself to the truth, is a weakness in terms of influence.
“As long as a man knows very well the strength and weaknesses of his teaching, his art, his religion, its power is still slight. The pupil and apostle who, blinded by the authority of the master and by the piety he feels toward him, pays no attention to the weaknesses of a teaching, a religion, and soon usually has for that reason more power than the master. The influence of a man has never yet grown great without his blind pupils. To help a perception to achieve victory often means merely to unite it with stupidity so intimately that the weight of the latter also enforces the victory of the former.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
The quote above in its truth is simultaneously profound and painful. We (as a society) are robbed from communicating with many of the true experts because their very expertise decreased their confidence in what they could be communicating to us. Humanity gravitates to harsh unflinching confidence at the expense of truth. In health, we first saw rise to this in the natural community. Then we saw a slow steer in messaging from the skeptical community. We are left with trench warfare, unflinching and unwavering. Perhaps my favourite writer has this to say about the intelligent man when faced with truth that cannot be overcome:
I will continue calmly concerning persons with strong nerves who do not understand a certain refinement of enjoyment. Though in certain circumstances these gentlemen bellow their loudest like bulls, though this, let us suppose, does them the greatest credit, yet, as I have said already, confronted with the impossible they subside at once. The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality one drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it.
"Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall ... and so on, and so on."
Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.
As though such a stone wall really were a consolation, and really did contain some word of conciliation, simply because it is as true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognise it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall; not to be reconciled to one of those impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to be reconciled to it; by the way of the most inevitable, logical combinations to reach the most revolting conclusions on the everlasting theme, that even for the stone wall you are yourself somehow to blame, though again it is as clear as day you are not to blame in the least, and therefore grinding your teeth in silent impotence to sink into luxurious inertia, brooding on the fact that there is no one even for you to feel vindictive against, that you have not, and perhaps never will have, an object for your spite, that it is a sleight of hand, a bit of juggling, a card-sharper's trick, that it is simply a mess, no knowing what and no knowing who, but in spite of all these uncertainties and jugglings, still there is an ache in you, and the more you do not know, the worse the ache.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground
Experts feel this ache, this wall. They hesitate as their work has limitations. For everything that we are growing to understand at paces unfathomable in generations past, we still lack absolute truths. We have no cure for aging, for the most devastating diseases. True experts cannot get on stage and confidently espouse a true method for longevity, to be healthier. The truth is often contradictory, complex, and confusing. Crowds do not like hearing “likely, but.” For every cry of ending the “bullshit salesmanship,” 10 others flock to easy answers, quick solutions, and promises of miracles. For most of those fancying themselves as intellectuals, they find it far easier to fall into the habit of default and unwavering skepticism (even in the face of evidence), sarcastic memes, and mockery. This not only drives the two warring factions apart, but dissuades the true experts from engaging.
True Expertise is Narrow
As our knowledge of the universe, including ourselves, grows, we are left with a conundrum. No one possesses the ability to simultaneously rise to expertise in every field. Even possessing a high level of expertise in numerous fields, what we call a polymath, is so exceedingly rare, these individuals tend to become celebrities. Ray Kurzweil touched base on this in one of his books, which I will not even attempt to guess which and get wrong (I’ve read most of his books). Ray talks about the increasing disconnect between fields. Every year, even researchers within say biology, are unable to speak each others language. Narrowed expertise, with the accompanying lingo, is preventing us from greater understanding. The volume of knowledge we likely have, without realizing it, is unfathomably massive and beyond our ability to comprehend.
Ray proposed a solution; we need to take the personal glory out of science and encourage many to get PhDs (or an equivalent) in general fields. We then need to work together to find truths, by holding “summits,” where experts speak in plain language about their research and findings. The “General Experts” can then work to put pieces together.
I utilized this strategy in developing my tablet technology (thanks Ray, we’ve never spoken but share mutual friends. I hope to one day shake your hand and thank you in person). I personally immersed myself in adequate levels of knowledge in every field I believed I needed to know to develop the tablets, and then hired experts in those fields. As many of the solutions to issues in one area would cause a catastrophic response in another, I only spoke about the problems and solutions in each field, and then would come back with new goals after corresponding in each area. This was a long process which amounted to thousands of iterative adjustments, and years of work. The end result was we figured out how to safely and effectively make something (both in manufacturing AND for consumers) and deliver it in a way previously thought impossible.
The point I am driving at is each expert I utilized is leagues beyond me in competence in their own field. Incomparable. That said, none of them feel confident in speaking on the tablet or our technology. They defer to me and in turn, I cautiously sidestep questions and get back to those who asked, after conferring with my experts and confirming what our conclusions were. Even though my knowledge in every area is below the expert I partnered with or hired, my overall confidence is the highest on the broad subject. My confidence is not unwavering. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on perspective), as described in the Nietzsche quote at the beginning of this section, many of my proponents and advocates maintain much higher levels of confidence in what I have done, than I do myself. If I am hesitant to talk on my own technology, and my experts even more so, why would true health experts be any different?
True health experts, like the experts I teamed with, typically have a very narrow view. They understand the limitations of their own work, and so are very cautious of drawing conclusions regarding the work of others - even how their work would affect the overall picture. There are many communicators that use strategies like I do in trying to piece experts work together, and we need more of this. Unfortunately, I believe that most of the communicators doing this are too keen, too excitable. Conclusions drawn are too strong and too optimistic. To quote the X Files, the feel I get is “I want to believe.” While I want to believe, so much, I understand that entering a field of thought with that position is an impediment to progress in said field. To pursue what I desire most, I must set out to falsify, not prove. I must surround myself with criticism, followed by support, not simply support. To suss out the truth we must attempt to disprove, not prove.
True Experts Are Rarely Confident Speakers
The last reason we rarely hear from true experts is probably the simplest. To become a true expert, someone who has submerged themselves so much in a subject that they have risen to the top of the field in understanding, they must almost certainly be an introvert. They almost certainly prefer to spend their time alone, or in a casual and intimate setting, learning. For most, the thought of standing on a stage, or having bright cameras shine on them, is off putting. Conversely, those that seek this rarely have the ability to gain the volume of knowledge and understanding needed to be an expert. The stagemanship needed to become a true influencer is counter to the behaviour of many experts. This is fine, so long as the extroverts make efforts to confer with experts and deliver the truth, not seek those that will confirm what they previously have determined is their position.
Next week, part II, a deeper look at the extremes on both sides