The digital age has helped us to spread information faster than before. While this development has been a positive one with respect to access of information, there is a gap between information and knowledge. Along with the growth of information, there has been a growth of pseudoscience and dismissal of scientific evidence. More often that not, this has been perpetuated by charismatic and confident individuals with no expertise in the subject . Unfortunately, as humans we often fail to distinguish between an expert and someone with little knowledge in a field that is unfamiliar to us. More often than not, the more knowledgeable people are full of questions because they know what they don’t know.
“What we know is a drop , what we don’t know is an ocean”
What explains the supreme confidence among individuals who know barely the surface of a subject ? It can be explained by the Dunning-Kruger Effect. While the Dunning-Kruger Effect is applicable to every aspect of life, my focus here will solely be on nutrition.
Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in their famous paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” , theorized that people who were incompetent possessed a cognitive bias . Not only were they unable to recognize their incompetence, they felt supremely confident about their abilities. They had an illusory superiority over experts, despite their lack of knowledge or skill in the subject. A graphical representation of the conclusions drawn by Dunning-Kruger can be seen in the figure below.
As one can see from the diagram, ignorant individuals possess the greatest confidence. However, once you start delving deeper into the subject , individuals start feeling hopeless knowing how much there is to know. The nadir is termed as the valley of despair . Subsequently as one gains further knowledge and experience one tends to move towards expertise and confidence once again rises. How many times have you come across “celebrity doctors” or online experts claiming with supreme confidence that a supplement is a sure shot way to cure everything from type 2 diabetes to blood pressure. Or diet advocates claiming a particular type of diet is the cure to everything from Cancer to COVID-19 . For example, recently countless self proclaimed experts have been selling immunity boosting foods and supplements to counter COVID-19. Overwhelming evidence suggests that immunity cannot be boosted overnight if you do not have healthy lifestyle habits. Proper nutrition, sleep and exercise are long term strategies to help support the immune system.
Despite evidence based practitioners debunking such claims, countless people take them seriously. This can be explained by the fact that those who are selling such solutions are sitting at the peak of Mount Stupid, seen in the diagram. Hence , their confidence level is more than people who have greater knowledge than them. There is always an appeal to authority when you point out such fallacies. The arguments always start with “Well he is a doctor and hence must know everything about human health”, never mind the fact that a psychiatrist does not automatically become an immunologist or a nutrition expert.
The following cartoon provides an excellent representation of how individuals with almost no expertise can brainwash people into believing myths
Why Nutrition in Particular is Prone to Cognitive Bias?
While Dunning -Kruger effect is applicable to every field of human life, nutrition in particular has witnessed a concerted effort at obfuscation of facts and misinterpretation of results. Why is it so? Why are the beliefs so strong and difficult to change ? What gives people so much confidence to make false claims? You typically do not see a car mechanic claiming that he knows how to manufacture a car . However ,you will see a person who has recently lost weight or has been cured of a health condition claiming to know everything about health and nutrition . This can be explained by the fact that individuals consider anecdotal evidence or personal experience as the ultimate truth. If it has worked on me it must work on every individual I know. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all and such strategies backfire. Nutritional sciences, like any other field of science , must rely on evidence to make recommendations.
The quality of evidence also matters. Often the media sensationalizes results based on studies carried out on mice. However, what applies to mice does not always translate to humans. Hence, if we carefully read the studies further research and experimentation is always recommended which is ignored by media channels . There is a propensity towards sensationalizing the results. After all sensational articles always sell more.
Sunk Cost Fallacy: Why do individuals remain invested in wrong ideas?
If we observe the graph of Dunning-Kruger effect, once the peak of Mt Stupid is reached one tends to hit the valley of despair when confronted with new facts. But is it always true? Not necessarily. There are many individuals who will remain invested in wrong ideas. For example if a particular diet has worked for them and they have managed to build a cult following with their ideas, they want to ensure everyone they know is on the same diet. It is almost like a religion for them. When countered with facts they have a tendency towards dismissing them as “propaganda by the big pharma/ big food” or make outlandish claims like “doctors don’t want you to know the truth”. They support their arguments by cherry picking evidence from the scientific literature. One may ask , why these seemingly well read individuals continue with their propaganda even when they clearly know they are wrong.
This can be explained by the concept of Sunk-Cost Fallacy. If you have invested in tickets for a sports game and it is boring, most likely you will sit through it. Proponents of a particular type of diet, even when they come to know others have achieved comparable results without following their advice, will refuse to let their ideas go. They will insist their diet and methods are the only solution. They have invested too much time and money in building a business empire selling misinformation. Now there is no looking back for them! Once again, revisiting the Dunning-Kruger Effect curve, many individuals do start going downhill from Mt. Stupid when evidence is provided. However, due to sunk-cost fallacy , they refuse to acknowledge that they are wrong. Financial compulsions ensure that their propaganda machinery must be kept up. Which is why you still see quacks being popular on the internet and television, despite being debunked since the past two decades. They simply find a new audience if they lose their original fan following. In conclusion, nutrition will continue to be driven by ideologies in the future.
Challenges for Evidence Based Practitioners
Evidence based practitioners must be extra vigilant and continue to tackle misinformation. While new frontiers in science must be reached, it should be acknowledged by all evidence based practitioners that fad diets and misleading propaganda is here to stay and has evolved. Social media has enabled the spread of misinformation rapidly, but it can also help connect evidence based practitioners and scientists to support each other in tackling the same effectively. Critically reading articles and informing the public why a certain piece is pseudoscience will go a long way in creating credibility . Educating people is important, and one must remember information both good and bad is available. Discerning individuals will google, read and develop an interest to find out more on human health and nutrition. Science has progressed by tackling challenges and overcoming obstacles, but in the end truth triumphs.
On a humorous note I will end this article with a famous cartoon from the New Yorker which highlights the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the challenge that lies ahead.