The Transmission of Knowledge

Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar that got me thinking about something other than the topic, which was sports drinks. A well-respected researcher who had conducted many studies explained the findings of the research in her field. I entered the talk thinking that I knew nothing about this field, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear, but I soon realized that I “knew” more about the subject than I realized.

If you’re around sports you hear all sorts of advice given to athletes about hydration. “Gatorade is no better than water.” “You should cut Gatorade with water, 50/50.” “Caffeine will dehydrate you, stay away from it when playing sports. I’ve heard such statements made with supreme confidence from parents watching their children to medical doctors advising patients. The problem is, they’re all wrong. And if you understand a bit about how the body works, you quickly understand things like why caffeine doesn’t dehydrate you during exercise.

But, that bit of understanding is something I, and a lot of other people who hear this advice, don’t have. Over the years, the repetition of statements has generated a consensus in my brain. By accident I’d come to believe something that isn’t true, and it’s been reinforced by the ignorance of others who have formed the same beliefs. But when you see the studies on the subject, it’s clear that the academic consensus is completely at odds with the conventional wisdom on this.

This story is an old one. How often do we hear that sports stadiums promote economic development, or that growth hormone enhances performance? The public perception is directly at odds with the scientific consensus. How does the conventional wisdom get things so wrong, and how can we combat this? And I wonder how many things I think I know are wrong.

If you are an expert, speak up and don’t wait for someone to ask your opinion. Researchers generally speak to one another, and are rewarded only for doing so. In some cases, researchers are discouraged from reaching outside normal channels. If you see a reporter get the facts wrong, send him/her an e-mail saying, “hey, here’s another perspective on the issue that I thought you might appreciate.”

Also, be skeptical of everything, but at the same time acknowledge that you may lack the tools to understand everything. Don’t take the words of your friend as a fact, and don’t necessarily think you can piece together a conclusion all on your own. Remember that things that may appear to make sense on the surface may be more complex. Find expert opinions when you can, and don’t just gravitate to the ones who seem to support what you want to believe.

I don’t have a good answer, but the main thing is to be cognizant that these errors exist.

3 Responses “The Transmission of Knowledge”

  1. Ken Houghton says:

    In that context, a quote from ESPN’s article on the latest pigeon-tempter to go up at County Stadium (http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4897641):

    “Selig headed a group that bought the Seattle Pilots in bankruptcy court in 1970, moved the franchise to Milwaukee and renamed it the Brewers.”

    Isn’t this what the RIM chairman tried to do with the Glendale Coyotes?

  2. Josh says:

    “How does the conventional wisdom get things so wrong, and how can we combat this?”

    I might be wrong on this, but when John Kenneth Galbraith coined the phrase “conventional wisdom” wasn’t it to highlight how little of the wisdom was actually true?

  3. rob says:

    this may be too far out there, but given how easy it is to access information these days, there is almost no reason to be wrong about these things. on most subjects there is almost no need to say ‘i think….’. all you need to do is type it into the google. for example, just google ‘does caffeine dehydrate’ and you’ll have your answer (as long as you’re not looking at a questionable info source).

    hey, we all come to believe things that are not true. but when my father tells me that he thinks marty schottenheimer was a solid playoff coach, all we need to do is look at his playoff record and, voila, we no longer have to think.

    this means that ‘expert opinion’ is less and less important. unless the subject matter is really complicated, many answers are out there for us if we only look. so while expertise is of course something to strive for, expertise when applied to an unsolved problem is worth listening to. ‘expertise’ around known things is just noise.