Is Your Expert Really an Expert?

Expert A person who is very knowledgeable about, or skilful in, a particular area.1

A Recent Personal Example

I attended a talk by a nutritionist recently.  It was provided by my employer as part of a suite of activities that formed a workplace health, fitness and wellness awareness week.  It was an interesting week which I will probably write more about at some point.  I attended the nutritionists talk because I know I could do with making some dietary changes and because I believed I would be receiving accurate and useful information.  I work for a company with science at its core so I assumed, and she was presented as such,  that ‘our’ expert would be just that, an expert on nutrition.


I’m all for trusting the expertsif it can be demonstrated that they are experts

I’m not advocating blindly accepting everything that a presumed expert tells you.  Nor am I advocating not questioning experts.  In my opinion/experience a genuine expert will be willing to answer questions on their area of expertise with openness, clarity and in a manner consistent with the best available evidence.  They’ll actively engage in open discussion with other experts in their field.  They’ll say they don’t know when they don’t!

What I am advocating is ensuring an expert really is an expert and then accepting their opinion as such.

What I actually got was some basic dietary advice and an opportunity to exercise my analytical and quackery detection skills.

Most of the information on the presentation slides was what I was expecting to receive and met current Irish dietary guidelines.2  It was the stuff we all know about, to some degree, and, at least in my case, often choose to ignore!

The ad lib information was somewhat different, it appeared to be based on the beliefs of the nutritionist not grounded in good science.   Two points in particular led me to question how much of an expert this expert really was.  Firstly the claim that we should ingest foods that keep our bodies alkaline and secondly the claim, in relation to fluoridation of water, that fluoride is toxic and we should do everything we can to get rid of it.  I won’t spend time here discussing how these claims fall down because I’m not an expert in these fields and because others have written about these topics at length.  For informative assessments see here, here, here and here.

As you will know, if you’ve read my ‘About QD’ page, I’m an introvert so I need time to think and to reflect in order to speak coherently.  I’d like to have challenged her there and then but that’s one of my limitations and I accept it.  What I did do was to walk away and play to my strengths.  I looked her up and determined that, as I suspected, she isn’t really a nutritional expert.  She is actually a Microbiologist, by degree, and holds a Diploma in Nutritional Therapy.  In Ireland anybody can claim to be a nutritionist3 and see boxes below.  If you want qualified dietary advice make sure you consult a dietitian.

What is a Dietitian?

A Dietitian is a health professional who has a Bachelor's degree specialising in foods and nutrition, as well as a period of practical training in a hospital and a community setting. It takes at least four years of full-time study at a university to qualify as a Dietitian.  Many Dietitians further their knowledge by pursuing a master's or Doctoral degree. Dietitians apply the science of nutrition to promote health, treat and prevent malnutrition and provide therapeutic dietary guidelines for patients, clients and the public in health and illness.

The title "Registered Dietitian” and "Dietitian" will be protected by law so that only qualified practitioners who have met the required education qualifications and continue to maintain their knowledge and skills through continuing professional development, can use that title.3
What is a Nutritional Therapist?

There are all sorts of courses of differing lengths which claim to train nutritional therapists. Nutritional therapists are not eligible to register with the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists and will not be eligible to register with CORU, the multi-profession health regulator in Ireland.

Nutritional therapists provide nutritional advice in private clinic settings. Some may offer nutritional tests such as food intolerance testing or hair analysis which are not evidence based within conventional medicine. Some may also offer treatments such as supplements, detox diets, and food exclusions for which there is little robust scientific evidence.

Products or supplements may be offered as part of the consultation process. 3

I was right to be wary.  While the nutritionist does have some nutritional training I am not able to determine the quality of her training and she certainly doesn’t meet the stringent requirements to be a regulated health professional.

Aside from exercising my analytical and quackery detection skills I did take some positives from the talk.  In the two weeks since the talk I’ve cut my caffeine intake down to two cups of tea per day, I’m drinking much more water, I’m falling in line with recommendations for fruit intake and I’m getting there with the vegetables.  Go me!

Verifying Your Expert

As a rule of thumb if the first page of results from a Google search of your expert is full of pages claiming life changing results and happiness if you buy their product(s) then your expert is probably an expert in sales of snake oil and not the field they claim to be expert in.

Check their website.  What does it claim?  Are they qualified in the field they claim to expertise in?  Can you verify their qualifications? Are their qualifications recognised by the appropriate governing or regulatory body?  Can you verify their claims? Do they have any published papers which support their expertise in the field or support their claims?  Have other groups  published studies which would support their claims?  Beware of pay to play predatory journals when verifying claims – just because something is published in a journal doesn’t mean it’s had a rigorous peer review and is scientifically sound. 

Practice Verification

I’ve written a tutorial piece, here, which is based on a recent social media exchange with regard to health claims and the role of experts.  Try your own verification and let me know what you come up with in the comments section.

Resources

Bealls List of Predatory Publishers 2016

Google

Google Scholar 

100 Time Saving Search Engines for Serious Scholars

PubMed

Quack Watch

Science Blogs 

Science Direct

Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies

References

  1. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/expert, last accessed 18 Apr 2016.
  2. https://www.fsai.ie/science_and_health/healthy_eating.html, last accessed 20 Apr 2016
  3. https://www.indi.ie/what-is-a-dietitian/dietitians-nutrition-experts.html , last accessed 22 Apr 2016.

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