Observations about nutritional incompetence

Bora at A Blog Around the Clock posted a well written piece about expertise in journalism yesterday.  He describes a division of experts and generalists; obviously the experts are those who have spent years studying a specific topic and understand it inside and out, and these are the people who should be communicating on their topics.  Unfortunately, they may have the greatest difficulty relaying their knowledge to a journalist, and especially directly to the general public.

In nutrition, though experts hold rank, I think generalists have a higher relative importance compared to other subjects.  It can be easy to lose sight of the forest when you stare at the trees for too long.  Because there is such a huge entanglement of different health topics, an understanding of each is important to gauge relative contributions of each.  This is where I feel the value in blogging lies- if more experts got online and blogged, it would be much easier to get a sense of the state of things.

As of now, most people get their information from mass media, celebrities, snake oil salesmen, and other sensationalist sources.  Some of these people are simply criminal in get-rich-quick schemes, but some genuinely believe they are writing accurate information, but manage to be completely wrong.  Why is this?

One reason, also brought up by Bora, is the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Quite simply, ignorance breeds confidence.  Elaborated, it observes a lack of metacognition (self awareness/judgement) in incompetent individuals.   Since they cannot see their own incompetence, they overestimate their understanding on a topic.  There are a lot of reasons why this seems to be, as discussed in Dunning and Kruger’s paper (1, free full text here).  Incompetent people also cannot recognize competence effectively, therefore cannot rightly adapt their perspective on a topic.

This raises an interesting possibility.  Though I am for the most part enthusiastic about the potential for media, and especially social media to improve health information, consumers may reinforce incompetence simply by giving their attention to it.  The average person who does not know a great deal about nutrition will tend to visit more popular websites which tend to be the most sensational and inaccurate.  They are easier to find, and written in simple messages by usually incompetent writers.  An increased traffic and comments to their website are positive reinforcers to write more – especially if they put up advertisements or sell products.  The people with pure motives – an inherent desire to make discoveries and objectively elucidate a complex nutritional environment, tend to stay offline.  This needs to change.

After my recent post about science skepticism, a commenter “katja” wrote “when it comes to nutrition, everyone eats, so everyone has an opinion.”  I find this perfectly relevant to this issue.  Not only are information sources generally poor, but because people have to make decisions on what they eat, they must have some idea, however deluded it is, on what a healthy diet is.  This doesn’t happen in all sciences.  Because of it, they generally form opinions and share them with others.  They “know” what is “good” and “bad,” but in reality it is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.  A little information from the experiences of modernity make for a confident ignorant, and people are attracted to confidence.

I often find myself observing nutritional conversations, the conversers fully aware of my passion for nutritional science, and when I engage them they are clearly annoyed at my lack of directness in advice.  It is so difficult to relay the complexities of science to a lay person, who desire simple answers without a biochemistry lesson.

Maybe I am simply poor at communicating scientific messages, but it is troubling when you seemingly reinforce others’ tendencies to seek non-credible information sources because they won’t accept your cautious positions.

The double edged sword is oh so painful.

Reference

1. Kruger J, & Dunning D (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77 (6), 1121-34 PMID: 10626367

  • justa guy

    Nutrition is a very weak science. My low opinion of nutrition in general was crystallized as an undergrad when talking to a senior who had been studying nutrition for some years. He drank probably a couple quarts of water a day and explained to me that every soda I drank dehydrated me rather than hydrated me. He was nonplussed by the facts that at the time I had been drinking only soda for the prior 4 days, and that 3 days without water (let alone ingesting something that actively dehydrates you) results in death. I decided maybe nutrition would be a more meaningful science in 30 years, and that was about 10 years ago (there was some craze for 7 glasses of water a day back then, before it was acknowledged that for a typical diet food contains most of the water you need to keep hydrated.)Not trying to be offensive, but from the outside nutrition looks like a very young science and not a very reliable one.

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  • http://www.recomp.com Colby

    Thanks for the comment. It sounds like the person who you talked with only “studied” through secondary sources, and not by reading the peer reviewed literature himself, as I don't know how anyone could conclude that soda, or even almost any beverage with caffeine in it, dehydrates. Nutritional research is very difficult to interpret at times, as evidenced by the many different camps on various issues. People are passionate about food for reasons that are often not objective, and this makes evidence-based diet adoptions difficult. Then you have people like Pollan who reduce eating rules to 7 words, and on the opposite spectrum geneticists who are using complex computer modeling to try to decode the relationships between genomics and nutrition. I think the latter is the future- it is clear that humans can tolerate a range of nutritional patterns and an individual approach with the help of fast improving technologies will make sense of messy contradictions. There is definitely a ways to go on many fronts but there has been some good progress on many others. I don't think nutritional science is necessarily weak per se, but it is often misinterpreted and misused so that people don't receive the proper messages.