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.
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