Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Listening to Experts Makes You Stupid

Got to work early this morning, and I thought this article deserved a quickie post:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16826-brain-quirk-could-help-explain-financial-crisis.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=online-news

I think you could replace "Financial Crisis" with "Health Crisis" in the headline and nicely sum up the current boom in metabolic diseases etc. Most of us have done it at one point or another: uncritically accept the advice given by experts, even when a little thought shows it makes little sense. Now we've learned that the brain has a specific mechanism where it essentially shuts off given "expert advice". This perhaps explains why people seem to be thrown into such cognitive dissonance when presented with evidence which is rationally a slam dunk, but also contradicts what their doctors, the government, the media, and so forth have told them. I'm sure many of you have encountered irrational anger from friends and family when you question nutritional dogma. One of the weirdest things for me is how bent people get when I push them to justify why exactly "healthy whole grains" are so healthy. Still waiting (going on a couple of years now) for a response beyond "everybody knows that, so shut up."

That's not to say expert advice is necessarily bad - you just need to use your own brain as well, and weigh the expert information appropriately. Tom Naughton makes this point very nicely in "Fat Head" (see discussion of "functioning brain").

BTW, I'm finding "Fat Head" to be the most effective tool yet in overcoming the mental block created by "expert advice" (as opposed to my usual boring biochemistry lecture - maybe not so surprising). I suspect it's the humor that somehow breaks down the barriers of cognitive dissonance. It would be funny (in every sense of the word) if laughter made us more rational.

8 comments:

Calvin said...

Hi Dave,

I linked to your blog from Conditioning Research--I like your topic today--well worth much more discussion . . . I thought that I'd fire an opt-ed link your way--just think about health issues (or any other issue) and I think you'll get the point. Yes, cognitive dissonance and critical thinking are very important life skills to learn. Link: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20081110_america_the_illiterate/

Calvin

Dave said...

Hi Calvin. That's an outstanding piece. One wonders about the correlation/causation between the rise of the described functional illiteracy and negative shifts in nutrition and lifestyle. I wish I had time to investigate this in more detail, e.g. how does the current standard American diet compare with the diet prior to the Great Depression?

A related brain bubble I've had lately has to do with stress. One of the hallmarks of the stress response is basically a shutdown of rational thought. That makes sense: if a bear is chasing you, you don't have time to sit around puzzling through the various options. So stress makes you stupid, and chronic stress makes you chronically stupid. Nutritionally induced hormonal derangement probably includes chronic elevations in stress hormones. Is the sort of short-term thinking, instant gratification culture we see today a result of diet?

Trinkwasser said...

That is brilliant! It takes considerable intelligence to be as stupid as some people. You really have to work on throwing rational thought out the window.

tom naughton said...

You are exactly right ... make people laugh, and they're more likely to listen.

Glad to hear it's working.

Tom Naughton
Producer, "Fat Head"

anandsr said...

The situation seems to endemic.

This is happening in Physics also. It is generally known that Relativity has some short comings one of them being not working well with Quantum theory. So we know that there is some gap in relativity.

There is the observation that stars in galaxies move too fast. Normally an unobserved mass theory (Dark Matter) wouldn't be a problem. But we have an equation (MOND) that predicts the speed of stars quite accurately. Still almost no scientist wants to consider that relativity may not work for galaxies after all.

The situation is as funny as in the Medical world or in the financial world. But at least the physics problem is not ruining lives.

Is thing happening in other sciences as well? Something seems wrong with the way we promote science.

Tony Kenck said...

I completely agree that Fat Head is a great way to introduce people to a better dietary place.

I watched it with my wife the other day. If nothing else she got to hear the message from a different lunatic.

Cheers.

Tony

Dave said...

I'm going to have to buy another copy of "Fat Head". Mine has "gone viral" in our social circle.

Dave said...

@anandsr,

I don't think the problem is how science is promoted, but how it is practiced. The scientific method sets the bar for rational reasoning given incomplete information. Practitioners rarely make it over that bar. In fact, they usually do a full sprint right under it while patting themselves on their back for their intellectual accomplishments.

It's just part of the human condition. We all just need to be aware of the situation when making decisions based on "scientific" conclusions.