Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Experts, Expert Opinion, and Science - May They Never Meet

Dr. Eckel describes himself as “a scientist and professing six-day creationist and a member of the technical advisory board of the Institute for Creation Research…” Many scientists are religious. This is not to question Dr. Eckel’s religious beliefs, but to question his ability to think scientifically. He believes there is scientific proof that the world was created in six days and that evolution does not exist. This should at least raise eyebrows when the co-chair of an influential panel charged with giving scientifically sound dietary advice has a financial conflict of interestand proselytizes for beliefs that are anti-scientific.
Practice guidelines affect both public policy and medical practice. We should expect professional medical organizations—like the American Heart Association—to examine all the evidence relating to diet and heart disease risk.
The American people should be able to trust that only impartial scientists write guidelines. We should be confident that those experts are not working to advance corporate interests and that they do not espouse beliefs that are well outside the scientific mainstream. An avowed creationist who consults for a food lobby hardly seems an appropriate choice to fulfill these criteria.
For the last several decades, the AHA has promoted a low-fat high-carbohydrate diet as a cornerstone of heart health. It has taken a very public position that saturated fats are a major driver of heart disease risk and the mounting tide of evidence that this is dead wrong must put them it in a very uncomfortable position. And yet a fundamental requirement of science—as opposed to propaganda—is that when evidence that contradicts a hypothesis is replicated over and over again, that hypothesis must be abandoned.
This writer is very confused.  She says we should be able to trust that only impartial scientists write guidelines.  There is no such thing as an "impartial scientist", and if there were, there would be no way to identify one.  Further, the scientific method is very clear about the problem with truth - people.  The point of the scientific method is to remove the influence of humans on determining what is or is not true as regards scientific inquiry. 
She says we should be confident those experts are not working to advance corporate interests, but come on - how will that happen?  Many of them are, and it's ridiculous to think that we can figure out which which is which.  We should look at experts and politicians and corporations and their products and perform due diligence - including considering the opinions of "experts" who will judge everything created by any corporation as being a bad thing.  
As for this assertion, that we should be confident that they [scientists] do not espouse beliefs that are well outside the scientific mainstream, that's another laugher.  If that was the criteria for trusting a scientist, we might all still believe the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around us.  But it is also just an extension of the writer's underlying confusion - that we lay persons should be able to trust all knowing, all caring and all loving experts with our health, since we're all too stupid to sort out our own self interest and they practically were put on the earth to help us and ignore their own self interest.
There are no simple answers and there is not likely to be a solution that will remove from our plates the job of figuring this stuff out for ourselves.  
Good science can be executed by idiots with bad intentions and crazy beliefs.  Bad science is often the result of caring and highly informed people with great intentions.  The underlying assumption of the scientific method is that we cannot trust humans.  
Let the buyer beware.  The AHA has little to do any longer (and it may have never had anything to offer in that arena) with helping you keep your heart healthy, but that is not new news and has nothing to do with who their experts are.  It's a result of, or the cause of, the AHA's refusal to acknowledge how little we have proven by science about diet and health; and the AHA's assertion that it knows what is good/bad for heart health; and the AHA's refusal to admit to being wrong when there is now plenty of evidence that contradicts the AHA's advocacy of a low fat diet.
The AHA is just another institution gone wrong, of which there are plenty of other examples, and the idea - prestigious and influential institutions which are found to be self serving vice purposeful - is one of the less surprising discoveries in this time.  Raise your fist and be thankful that we have equal access to information, and need no longer be dependent on experts and institutions.

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