Should we listen to what experts say on fields outside their area of expertise?

With the problem of fake news and the amount of experts holding wacky opinions, Clodagh Healy discusses whether we ought to exercise caution in who we listen to on different subjects.

Expert is a word that evokes a sense of assurance and reliability. We seek them out because we know they are the most knowledgeable in their respective fields. In the last few years, a funny thing happened: some of them have become our friends, the mainstream experts we are all familiar with - the Neil de Grasse Tysons and Bill Nyes of the world. You may not be friends with Neil de Grasse Tyson, but through television and social media, it can feel like it. Known as 'parasocial interaction,' it is basically the illusion of closeness to a figure in the public eye.

It could be as simple as reading their tweets every day or seeing them regularly appear on talk shows. It creates a sense of trust and familiarity over time. It comes from the same logic as to why we seek our friend's opinions. Through our own familiarity with them, we trust their common sense and reasoning.

The increasingly pressing question is: should we? It's all fine and well if an expert gives his two cents on something based in their area of academia. They have the credentials and the information to provide an informed opinion on these matters, even if some might not agree with those opinions. How good those opinions are is a different debate altogether. A discussion equally as important is: should we listen to experts outside their fields of study? Views which, without that experience from study, don't have the same weight behind them. Those opinions can, of course, be harmless - until they're not.

An example of this is Jordan Peterson. He is a well-known Canadian psychologist, either adored or loathed. He initially arose as a controversial figure in his own area of study by opposing Bill C 16. For those unfamiliar with this bill, it became Canadian law in June 2017 to add more protection to the rights of transgender individuals. Since then, he has become something of a poster boy for a wide variety of conservative internet communities. Instead of focusing on those particular controversial views, it is useful to explore the opinions he holds outside any claim to studying that topic.

Here is the thing - Mr Peterson only eats meat. That's the opinion. Well okay, that's not the opinion, but it is the truth. He believes that eating a diet devoid of vegetables and carbohydrates is healthy, and strictly consuming meat, salt, and water is beneficial. Now you might be thinking to yourself: 'Is this a Drumcondra reading test? I must not have read that correctly.' It's not, and you did.

Since April of 2018, he has been surviving only on meat, salt and water. Now again, you might be wondering, 'Why do we care about this?' It is simple - he has the built-up influence and trust of his followers and is not a dietitian. Peterson's YouTube channel is listed under education, and yet this diet advice isn't from a dietician. His daughter, who introduced it to him, again, is not a dietician. He stated on the Joe Rogan podcast that it helped with his depression, and ailments of his autoimmune system had lifted since starting this diet. That is a podcast which gets between 1.5 and 2.5 million views a day on YouTube. That is a vast audience he is reaching. This means that about two million people heard this advice and some of them, because it came from someone with the title of Professor, likely trusted it.

Of course, if a person finds something that they think works for them, naturally, they would want to share it to the world. The reason it is problematic though, is that these experts must understand the influence they have. These people have cultivated a sense of friendship and trust with their audience. They have a responsibility not to abuse that trust. Beauty experts should not be promoting 'slimming teas' any more than Peterson should be stamping his unqualified approval onto extreme diets. This is a diet deemed to be 'unnecessarily restrictive' by genuinely qualified dieticians.

This is where self-accountability needs to be addressed. People need to look inward at their own personal biases. Many of these may make them take bad advice from these individuals. Advice, especially advice which concerns an individual’s health, should always be verified by that person's GP or by another medical professional. Even then, it is widely recommended to seek a second opinion from a second medical professional.

A study found that 88% of patients that went to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion ended up 'changing their care plan after a new or refined diagnosis.' This shows how difficult giving accurate medical advice is. If it is hard for the actual experts to get it one hundred percent correct each time, then why would anyone listen to a clinical psychologist doing a dietician’s job? Especially one who has no knowledge of their audience’s medical history.

Despite their responsibility to do otherwise, it seems inevitable that apparently wise individuals will continue to sporadically say things which are wrong. So, should people listen to things experts say outside their area of expertise? The Thai government and dive team didn't listen to Elon Musk, and they completed a near-perfect rescue mission. Ultimately, it is up to the individual, but don't be hesitant to question that opinion and seek a second from a qualified source.