There can be no helping the matter: In today’s complex world we have to rely on experts’ advice. One person can no longer have the capacity to be knowledgeable enough to make reliable decisions on all matters requiring his/her attention.
I can bring a multitude of examples to demonstrate this point with. The one currently most relevant to us as we are planning our home extension project is the use of building materials. Namely, what should our house’s new features be made of in order to achieve cost effective sound and thermal insulation while creating an environment that is nice to live in? While we need to make our own minds about what cost effectiveness means to us, we have to rely on external experts for constructive advice (pun intended); and since we are pretty ignorant in these matters we seem to be struggling to identify and acquire the services of the reliable experts whose advice we need.
There is another type of a problem to do with expert advice. What should one do if one receives contradicting expert advice? That's a good question we have found ourselves facing a week ago.
Dylan was sick with another outbreak of asthma. We seemed to have a pattern on our hands: he catches a cold, usually a very mild one, but that cold turns into asthma a few days later. Dylan’s regular doctor has said that if this pattern is detected then Dylan should be issued with preventer inhaler for him to puff on whenever he is prone for another asthma attack. On the down side, the regular use of steroids such as those in the preventer has been identified to reduce growth: according to the doctor, users of preventers tend to be one centimeter shorter than non users. Not much, but I wouldn’t want to be one centimeter short on brain capacity myself. Still, by our book the four consecutive colds turning into asthma were pattern enough to ask about this preventer while visiting the doctor.
Being that the visit took place on a weekend and being that the clinic we visit is pretty busy, we weren’t able to see Dylan’s regular doctor. Instead we got to see a doctor we haven’t seen before. That doctor turned out to be a bit of a weirdo:
First, he wouldn’t refer to Dylan’s illness as asthma; by his book, Dylan was battling bronchitis. This outlook is in contradiction to what we have been told both at the hospital and by the previous doctors: according to them, the current attitude is to relate to lung infections that seem to respond to Ventolin in babies older than one year as asthma.
Second, when we asked him about the preventer, he completely dismissed it as altogether ineffective with babies.
And third, when asked the unrelated question of whether we should vaccinate Dylan against flu, his reply was that as far as he knows children that young do not get vaccinated for flu. This contradicts research published in Scientific American that shows flu is mostly distributed through childcare facilities (and then passed on to older relatives), so much so that it claims flu would be effectively gone from the USA if all childcare attendees would be immunized. The case for vaccinating babies is so clear that American medical authorities are now recommending vaccinating all kids over six month old against flu. But out doctor did not only contradict American researchers, he also contradicted his own clinic partners and the hospital doctors who informed us it is recommended babies and kids with asthma get vaccinated against flu in order to prevent obvious complications.
When combining the above three observations it seemed to us as if we were dealing with an old style doctor here. Question is, what should we do? Should we listen to this expert or his predecessors? It’s not just the question of whose advice to follow: We have been known to visit medical authorities (e.g., a hearing tester) that asked about our handling of Dylan’s medical problems and then looked at us as if we’ve committed mass murder when, in fact, we followed what our doctors told us.
Experts, it seems, come in every color. It’s up to us to choose the color we prefer, but then again in order to do so we need to become some sort of an expert ourselves, which defeats the purpose.
So, what can we do about it?
One problem that was suggested to us with regards to addressing Dylan’s problem was to visit a paediatrician. However, I do not think this would solve our problems; it would mean that instead of hearing contradictory advice we will hear just one, but we will be unable to know whether the advice we receive is indeed right. There is an advantage to being able to access several experts, because one can learn things from the uncertainty of their advice. Then there are the issues with the paediatrician’s availability to see Dylan on a short notice, as in when Dylan falls sick.
It is therefore my opinion that the best course of action is to embrace the opportunity to become semi experts and make a conscious effort to achieve that. Using the web to access reliable sources, such as the aforementioned Scientific American, is a good start.
In general, taking the time to sort the wheat from the chaff seems to be the best course of action. And for that one has to keep an open mind while also maintaining an aroma of skepticism and applying critical analysis: expert advice should be welcomed as well as challenged, and experts that have been proven to have the wrong approach should be ignored.
In short, we need to apply the scientific method on our choice of experts.