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Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Scientific "Consensus" Means So Little

Anyone familiar with the subject will not find the following material from the prologue to Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease unfamiliar:
...the argument can be made that, to fully understand obesity alone, researchers should have a working familiarity with the literature in clinical treatment of obesity in humans, body-weight regulation in animals, mammalian reproduction, endocrinology, metabolism, anthropology, exercise physiology, and perhaps human psychology, not to mention having a critical understanding and familiarity with the nuances of clinical trials and observational epidemiology. Most researchers and clinicians barely have time to read the journals in their own subspecialty or sub-sub-specialty, let alone the dozens of significant journals that cover the other disciplines involved. This is a primary reason why the relevant science is plagued with misconceptions propagated about some of the most basic notions. Researchers will be suitably scientific and critical when addressing the limitations of their own experiments, and then will cite something as gospel because that's what they were taught in medical school, however many years earlier, or because they read it in The New England Journal of Medicine. Speculations, assumptions, and erroneous interpretations of the evidence then become truth by virtue of constant repetition.
By "the subject," of course, I did not mean the study of obesity. That just happens to be the example discussed. By "the subject," I meant scientific "consensus."

Look, I'm fairly familiar with bright, well-educated people. I spent years in Mensa before I got tired of it (When I was first a member, it was fascinating. People from all walks of life and with all sorts of interests were involved. Now--at least last time I tried it--nobody attends the meetings without spending the whole time talking about computers.); my family is just chock-full of them. Radiologists, engineers, lawyers, and so forth.

I know bright people. I mean, I know how they think, how they act, and so forth. And I will tell you wholeheartedly that as a rule, if you get them off "their" subject(s), they don't know any more than the next man.


Just for example, I've got an uncle who is really quite a high-level electrical engineer. I mean, this guy's tops, flies back and forth to Europe with some regularity because Nokia uses him as a consultant. One time, I was discussing taxation with him, and got to discussing the Fair Tax in particular. As I was explaining the subject, it gradually became clear that a fair amount of it just wasn't registering, and eventually he said, "I really don't know much about economics."

Of course he doesn't. He doesn't have time. He's flying back and forth to Europe, for goodness sake, to consult with Nokia. Who has time to read The Fair Tax Book?

Now, I know economics is one of the soft sciences at best, but you take my point. Highly specialized personnel often--remarkably often--do not know as much about things in general as you think they do. More often than you might think, when they say something, they are relying on information that they either half-remember, or don't fully understand, or haven't checked out in detail.

When someone says, "Scientists say," or refers to the "scientific consensus," take it with a grain of salt.

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