When can you trust the experts?

We have all been, in one way or another, persuaded by advertisers to buy something, or induced by salesmen to buy their revolutionary software, or even convinced by researchers that a model or tool is effective. Many of these with none or limited evidence. We are all aware that advertisements include meticulously chosen subliminal effects to influence our decisions. In other words, you are made believe in what ‘experts’ want you to believe in, and you are surrounded by these peripheral persuasions at home, at work, or on the streets. The question is when you can trust them.

In his book, When can you trust the experts, Willingham contends that we should take a more scientific stand toward the things that would affect us, and he offers to distinguish between good science and bad science. After all, with the hype of social media, we are exposed to a large amount of information which could influence our way of thinking and working.

In the first chapter of the book, why smart people believe dumb things, Willingham lays out how an individual behaves or thinks in certain ways because of unconscious persuasion of ads, propaganda, and even social interactions with others. He highlights that we tend to believe things that others believe and this social proof makes the persuasive messages more credible.

Moreover, many of these persuaders use the term “research-based” to persuade us. But, do these “empirical” research offer warrants for the credibility of their claims? Are all the papers published in peer-reviewed journals reliable? It is a known fact that many studies, particularly in health care and education, make sweeping claims which are influenced by conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, the problem is many of these unwarranted studies become widely accepted: for example, “learning styles” or “twenty-first-century skills” in education and schooling. Willingham remarks:

Education researchers have never united as a filed to agree on methods or practices that have sound scientific backing.

So he invites us to tell between good science and bad science. He highlights that in order to protect ourselves from believing false claims, we need to be aware of the peripheral cues in the persuasive messages, so we can discount them, and be aware of our own beliefs, which might bias how we evaluate new information. Besides, he recommends four steps to identify false claims and make the right decision, so that you’ll become more analytical and critical of what you are offered by persuaders around you. These are:

  1. Strip it and Flip it: To strip a claim you should use this sentence “If I do X, then there is a Y percent chance that Z will happen.” X is the persuasive message, Y is the value, and Z is the desired outcome. For example, “if we use online training instead of traditional training, there is a 50 percent chance that our employees’ productivity will increase.”Then flip the outcome. In this technique, flip the outcome or what you are to do. In the above example, the flipped message will be “if we use online training instead of traditional training, there is a 50 percent chance that our employees’ productivity will decrease.” Sometimes, you might have to flip both the persuasive message and outcome to analyze better.
  2. Trace it: To ensure if a claim is scientifically supported, you shouldn’t rely on credentials only. While someone’s status as a professor may indicate that his/her work has scholarly integrity, it doesn’t necessarily signify that the person applied scientific methods in evaluating the recommended change. Moreover, sometimes ‘experts’ or, in this context, persuaders misunderstand other researchers’ claims.
  3. Analyze it: Do not generalize a change based on your experience. Willingham’s main message of his book is “You can’t trust your own experience. You need scientific proof!”
  4. Should I do it: Using the previous three steps, you should ask yourself if  sufficient evidence is provided for the change that the persuader claims. Then consider all the factors that involve the change, and then make a decision.

I don’t personally find it feasible to apply all these steps, but if you are making a decision that involves your health or a substantial amount of money for your company, you might want to consider all of them. When can you trust the experts makes you somewhat more analytical of what you read and hear which concerns your health, work, and education.

Reference: Willingham, D. T. (2012). When can you trust the experts? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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