Why Distinguishing Between “Experts” and “experts” is SO Important.

The funny thing about listening to the Dietary Advisory Committee deliberations for a day and a half is that it gives one perspective—particularly when one has been at it for (ahem) close to 20 years! 

I’ve found that being in the room is a different experience than observing on the webinar.  In the room, you get a feel for those who come to hang on every word.  You get to chat with observers and staff and really feel the expertise, dedication, scientific imprimatur and, I’ll just say it, good intentions that back the Dietary Guidelines.  When I can’t attend in person, I participate via webinar.  Somehow, from meeting to meeting, I manage to suppress the shock over the nature of the comments brought to us by spirited vocal webcast observers in the chat. 

Reading the running chat of those observing via webinar is EYE-OPENING.

Here’s why. 1) Those speaking up are regularly expressing OPINION and representing their position as FACT; and 2) A chorus of agreement from the choir typically ensues. This is a PROBLEM.  It would be very easy for those who may not have a detailed knowledge of the Dietary Guidelines or the nuances of nutrition and science to believe that this is truth.  AND, it emboldens these folks to further spread their misinformation.  Case in point:  I am now sitting in a Dietary Guidelines session at the annual Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics meeting and one speaker in particular is misrepresenting (as I type) much about nutrition, science, and the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans process. 

So, I’m thinking—how is it that one observer on this week’s DGAC webinar can refer to those on this Advisory Committee as “experts” (lower case and in air quotes) and yet the individual featured in today’s session at the nutrition conference is positioning herself as an “Expert”?

Dictionary.com Definition of Expert.

“A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.”

My Opinion (see the distinction?) on Expertise.

  1. The term “expert” is both OVERrused and UNDERchallenged.
  2. To keep us all honest, not to mention maintain the integrity of our science (and God forbid our communications environment), we need to self-police what we are and are not “Experts” on.
  3. When we can’t do this ourselves, others should help out and do it for us. 

Real-life Examples.

  • I work at home.  I wear workout clothes approximately 80%, on average, during my workdays.  I have a lot of yoga pants.  I wear yoga pants a significant amount of the time—perhaps more than anything else except maybe jeans.  But, am I an “Expert” in yoga pants?  Of course not—I know what I like, what looks good on me, what’s comfortable, where to get ones that are affordable…and that’s about it. 
  • I choose to run a skincare business alongside my nutrition business.  I think that the two paths are complementary, the company is credible and innovative, and the products are unmatched.  So, I am a consultant—that gets me a discount on my products, the ability to share the products I love with those I care about, and a residual and passive stream of income as my husband and I plan for retirement (seriously, it’s just good financial sense). Do I have skin?  Yes, I do.  Do I know a bunch about skin and our products after being in the business for close to 5 years?  Sure.  But, I’m nowhere near THE “Expert” in skin or skincare.  Our dermatologists and other dermatology professionals are.    
  • Here’s a nutrition example for kicks.  I have been studying and working in the nutrition field for 25+ years. I have a master’s degree in public health, am a registered dietitian nutritionist, and have a wide variety of really solid experience. Yet, there are many concentrations within the nutrition field and none of us can be “Experts” in all of them—or even really in a lot of them, due to the complexity of nutrition science. For instance, I would never claim to be an “Expert” in systematic review protocol, or in nephrology, or in infant nutrition—just to name a few.  Nor would I disparage those who actually are.  It would be irresponsible.  Confusing.  And, in some cases, it could be harmful if I did and amount to malpractice. 

My point, if I haven’t been overt enough?  We need to let THE “Experts” do their jobs, have faith in them, and try not to needlessly antagonize them in the process.  These are dedicated scientists who are volunteering their time (and a lot of it) to supply the American people with the.most.stellar nutrition guidance possible.  As I expressed this week on the webinar chat, “May there be many on this webcast who are observing with an open mind to learn what the totality of science says vs. predetermined assumptions.  After all, we are expecting these folks to act like Experts.” And, when there was push back using “air quotes” of the label of “experts” and a suggestion that the Guidelines would be better off should the Committee be participating via webinar so that they could see the important comments being shared in the chat box, I realized how glad I am that they are free to concentrate on important and valuable scientific discussion vs. the “expertise” of an uninformed, yet vocal and mobilized, zealot community shouting for all to hear online. 

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