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Some subjects do not admit of expertise.

What constitutes a healthy diet changes every five minutes. To harvest the opinion of nutrition experts is to reap endless conflict and fickle revisions – if not complete reversals. Truly, the chasm that speaks to the breach between reasonably informed laymen and the devoted expert is a narrow one. Yes, the expert knows more, a great deal more, than the laymen. The expert may even possess greater insight into the relationship between food and health. Be that as it may, if the accuracy of predictions is the only meaningful way to assess whether someone possesses genuine expertise in a given subject (and it surely is) then the flakey nature of nutrition advice speaks to what can only be described as meaningless expertise.

Yes, we know to a moral certainty that minimum dietary requirements must be met to avoid death and disease, and over indulgence in some food groups will negatively effect both quality and span of life. But to read nutritional advice on, say, the value of anti-oxidants, the negative effects of vegetarian diets, the positive effects of vegetarian diets, red meat, pastas, breads, milk, the Atkins diet, etc and ad infinitum is to witness the entire spectrum of endorsement to condemnation. What is inescapable, is that a common sense approach to eating healthy has approximately the same chance of success as one carefully guided by any given expert. Yes, in principle some of the experts must be closer to the truth than some others, but which experts?

I can hear the cries now we have to eat, and we have to make decisions based on the available information – no matter how incomplete the data or flawed the analysis. It’s true, much like everything else in life when we don’t possess all the relevant information, we look to whatever appeals to our sense of reason, and make a choice – knowing full well that it might be wrong. However, if there is a point to be gleaned from the above, it’s that the label expert is inappropriate for a wide variety of subjects, and to call a nutritionist (et al) an expert on food in the same breath as a mathematician an expert on mathematics, is to render the term ‘expert’ useless. Again, if an expert is only an expert if they can predict the future based on what they have learned from the past, then food experts are not experts, but merely databanks prone to very shakey assertions.

The Hierarchy of Real Expertise

1.  Pure Logic/ Mathematics

2.  Evidentiary Coupled with Experimental Science (e.g. Physics)

3.  Applied Sciences (make a bridge that doesn’t collapse)

4.  Purely evidentiary studies (history minus analysis e.g.)

5. Economics/ Psychology/ Social Theory/ Anthropology/ Meteorology/ Politics/ Medicine

Some scientists, and their supporters, are routinely labelled arrogant. Arrogant for being so sure of their conclusions, and so dismissive of conclusions that contradict them. However, aside from the fact that to read a paper or book by a qualified scientist is to encounter great humility almost universally (humbleness in face of the facts being the primary requisite quality of any decent scientist) a scientist working in groups 1 through 4 is operating in spheres where conclusions can very often be drawn – where real answers are possible. That doesn’t make those disciplines more worthy of respect than others, but it does mean that conclusions drawn by scientists working in Groups 1-4 needn’t be treated with undo skepticism.

One last thought. Blanket distrust of expertise is likely borne of the conflation of Group 5 experts with the other four. Sure, there are problems with all five of them, from human error to corruption to laziness. But Group 5 change their minds every five minutes, so their thoughts and conclusions should be met with great caution and skepticism, and by default.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

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