Doctors, financial advisors, and other professionals — even engineers — can be wrong. They are not in the same category as the deliberate frauds discussed in the previous post, but bad advice is still bad advice, and it can be just as dangerous.
Some professionals get too busy to keep up with the advances in their field, and their knowledge becomes outdated. Others have become so specialized that they have a financial incentive to recommend only those procedures or investments that help pay their bills; i.e. they lose the required objectivity to properly meet your needs. In other cases some professionals may feel threatened by new ideas that undermine their cherished beliefs and diminish their status.
Science professionals, being human, are quite susceptible to emotional blockage, bias, and sometimes even fraud. (A very interesting older book on this topic is Betrayers Of The Truth by Broad and Wade; Simon and Schuster, 1983.) The scientific method tends to weed these folks out over the long run, but for the short run (which may take years, or even decades), you can hear scientific “conventional wisdom” that is wrong, even damaging.
For example, up until the late nineteenth century, when Louis Pasteur formulated the germ theory of disease, it was common hospital practice for doctors to perform their work without washing their hands. Many years prior to Pasteur’s germ theory, however, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that washing the hands with an antiseptic solution dramatically decreased the incidence of a fatal fever. He did not link this to any underlying theory of germs or other explanation; it was simply an empirical observation, but a significant one.
One would think that Semmelweis’ findings would have quickly ushered in a new era of clinical cleanliness, with Semmelweis receiving appropriate recognition for saving many lives, but no. In an ironic and sad example of the stubbornness of humans — even those with scientific training — Semmelweis’ urging of physicians to wash their hands was not only ignored, he was ridiculed and dismissed from his job at the hospital. When he persisted in writing angry letters encouraging physicians to embrace his sanitation methods, he was considered to have lost his mind, and was rewarded with a residence in an asylum. His stay was short, for he was beaten to death by guards within two weeks of his arrival.
Although Semmelweis’ story is an extreme one, it illustrates the fact that favored concepts, even among scientists, die hard. This truth was noted by Max Planck (1858-1947; a German physicist considered to be the father of quantum theory), who said,
“A new 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.”
In many important regards things are not much better today, not because we drive our maverick scientists to madness, but — perhaps even more troubling — because we are experiencing a proliferation of broad systemic corruption in science. Abetted by the shoddy state of journalism, this makes it exceptionally difficult for average folks to evaluate scientific opinions that can impact their pocketbooks, health, and freedom.
The bottom line is that scientific “truth” can lag reality for a very long time. There are two important points to be learned:
It is not whether a scientist, or 99% of scientists, make a claim,
what matters is the evidence and logic that are presented to validate the claim.
Second, a claim should be stated in clear terms that the average person can understand. Unscrupulous people try to win arguments by saying that only the “experts” can comprehend an issue, and therefore the rest of us, the average citizens, must trust them. This is nonsense. The average person is quite capable of understanding basic physics, basic economics, or other basic matters of science.
If someone tells you, “You wouldn’t understand,” tell them,
“Oh, yes I would, if you would speak plainly.”
Tips For Obtaining Advice From Professionals
1. Before you seek an opinion, verify the credentials of the professional from independent and competent persons or organizations of unquestioned integrity.
2. Obtain two or more opinions on any important issue. Make sure the professionals have no significant business or social relationships with each other.
3. Avoid the opinions of those who have a vested interest in their answer (e.g. do not ask a doctor who specializes in radiation therapy for cancer if you need radiation therapy; the predictable (but potentially biased) answer may be “yes,” even though other more objective doctors may say “no”).
4. Be cautious of those whose advice is coupled to extra products or services that they sell (e.g. doctors who recommend supplements, and who just happen to have those supplements for sale in their clinic). A sign of integrity in such cases will be that such folks will readily provide recommendations for comparable products/services from other independent sources.
5. Do your own research and ask questions. (If the professional can’t find the time for a full discussion, or resents being challenged, it’s probably best to find someone else.)
6. Seek those who have previously demonstrated that they will offer advice that may be at odds with their own natural inclinations or financial self-interest. (Such folks are hard to find, but if you do find them, file their names in your “trusted source” folder.)
Internet Hazards, Junk Journalism, and Movie Malarkey: Who Do You Trust? (Part 3)