Public health at stake with universal experts
12 September 2022
COLUMN. Research into the relationship between food and health is often hampered by universal experts whose authority is based on a combination of combativeness and self-confidence, rather than subject knowledge, write Professor Tommy Cederholm of Uppsala University and Benno Krachler, docent at Umeå University.
Ancient Egyptian inventor Imhotep (ca. 2,700 BCE) is generally regarded as the first known universal genius; i.e., someone with a command of all scientific disciplines of their day. The Syrian Ibn al-Nafis (ca. 1213–1288), the father of circulatory physiology, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (ca. 1466–1536), Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) are later renowned examples in this category.
By the twentieth century, science had developed to such an extent that exceptional gifts would be demanded to obtain a comprehensive overview of a single disciplinary domain. Today, the knowledge accumulated in medical science has reached a level at which few can even claim to know everything about a single subspecialty. Despite this, the conditions have been created – primarily in the mass media – for the creation of a new form of self-styled polymath: the universal expert.
The authority of the universal expert is based not on their subject knowledge, but on a combination of combativeness and self-confidence. Their acolytes are recruited through simplistic causal explanations and solutions that confirm the beliefs of the man and woman in the street.
If their intrusion is countered by those who have actually mastered the field of knowledge in question, it will usually only increase their media exposure; after all, the media loves nothing more than feuding “experts”. It is common for the universal expert to emerge triumphant from this battlefield, leaving the genuine experts to appear as dull defenders of vested interests.
The science of the relationship between food and health is often afflicted by universal experts. The complex interplay between a large number of exposures (nutrients) and long-term health outcomes demands a particular methodology and interpretation of research into diet and nutrition. Alas, many seem tempted to undervalue – or in the worst case, rail against – the quality of a type of evidence they are unaccustomed to evaluating.
The medical profession appears to have a particular proclivity towards this type of universal expertise. The ability to make difficult healthcare decisions in stressful situations is a vital clinical skill. In the wrong context, this same skill can create a dangerous sense of omnipotence.
The subject of nutrition is in decline in medical training, meaning that generally speaking those whose knowledge is based solely on a medical degree lack the competence to evaluate research findings on nutrition and diet. Nevertheless, self-appointed experts (with a medical background) continue to issue statements contradicting documents that are the result of years of joint research by hundreds of genuine experts, such as the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations or the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Nutritional physiologist Ingrid Larsson writes: “The interpretation and criticism of nutrition research based on flawed nutritional knowledge causes confusion both within the profession and for the public and may leave responsible politicians and other policymakers reluctant to make decisions on nutritional issues, as they consider the research field to be unsafe”.
In the end, the phenomenon of the universal expert makes losers of us all:
- The media loses the trust of the public when it emerges that it is disseminating unfounded claims.
- The universal expert undermines confidence in higher education and science.
- The public is harmed when false claims are disseminated that may lead to deteriorating health.
- The universal expert risks destroying their own credibility and becoming marginalised.
The media bears an enormous responsibility to thoroughly critically review its sources. When a media outlet does choose to give space to a universal expert, any professional or academic title with no relevance to the subject in question should be omitted. The media also has a responsibility to convey sound science, even when it is not sexy. In the best of worlds, higher education institutions should also safeguard scientific credibility and public health by disassociating themselves from false statements by alumni and active and retired employees.
Professor Tommy Cederholm of Uppsala University and Benno Krachler, docent at Umeå University