Experts: why so wrong, so often?

After my first non-fiction book was published, something unusual happened to me. Overnight, I suddenly became an “expert”. During book tours, I did newspaper, magazine, television and radio interviews. I was invited to speak at conferences and writers’ festivals and schools during National Book Week. Each presentation led to more invitations. I became the go-to writer for foreign Sunday paper editors who needed a West Coast perspective on my subject. I was even offered my own regular weekly broadcast gig on a popular TV newsmagazine show.

Why? Because I’d written a bestselling book. By the time my second book came out a couple years later, I was already a pretty well-known local “expert” on my subject matter. Even my publisher treated me with newfound respect (and a hefty advance).

Of course, I wasn’t really an expert at all. I had, as David H. Freedman describes it, “simply done a good job of gathering up a lot of information”. I never pretended to be an expert, but writing books and doing live presentations or media interviews can apparently make you one. That’s how physicians paid by pharmaceutical companies to help shill their drugs get to be called “thought leaders”. Continue reading

Nobel prize winner forced to retract three flawed peer-reviewed journal articles

When a respected Nobel prize-winning cancer scientist like Linda Buck is forced to retract not one, not two, but three of her published peer-reviewed journal articles, we might justifiably ask: “What the hell is going on here?” We might also question the system of academic peer review. Buck joins an alarmingly long list of big-name scientists embarrassed by retractions of their flawed research. Continue reading

Dr. Harriet Hall explains Tooth Fairy Science

tooth fairy girlLet’s say you’re a scientist who wants to do some research on the Tooth Fairy. You could design your study to determine if the Tooth Fairy leaves more money for a tooth left in a plastic baggie under the pillow than for a tooth wrapped in a piece of tissue (as we used to do in our family).  Or you could look at the average amount of money left behind for the first baby tooth to fall out compared to the last tooth.  Or perhaps you might attempt to correlate Tooth Fairy proceeds with the income of the toothless kid’s parents.

None of these would be good research, according to Dr. Harriet Hall, editor of Science-Based Medicine. She explains:

“You can get reliable data that are reproducible, consistent, and statistically significant. You think you have learned something about the Tooth Fairy. But you haven’t. Your data has another explanation, parental behaviour, that you haven’t even considered. You have deceived yourself by trying to do research on something that doesn’t exist.”  Continue reading