A revealing look at the fallibility of “experts,” and tips on how to glean facts from the mass of published misinformation.
Science and business journalist Freedman (Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines, 2000, etc.) begins with the assertion that, statistically, as many as two-thirds of all published studies may be wrong. Medicine, business, economics, social science—no matter the source, area of discipline or director, almost every study is subject to the same variety of factors that contribute to a high percentage of inaccuracy. These include lack of oversight, careless data entry and other forms of human error, as well as more corrupt factors like bias, pandering to a certain audience, manipulating data to achieve a desired outcome, suppressing mistakes to retain funding or earn tenure and industry influence. In addition, the media can distort information, as journals are more interested in publishing new and positive study results to move newsstand copies, and reporters are reluctant to fact-check scientists. The Internet exacerbates error by making information readily accessible, but not necessarily filtered by its reliability and the proliferation of “informal experts” online only blurs the line between fact and presumption. The result is an environment in which many studies get attention, making it difficult for the average information consumer to tell which studies are accurate and which aren’t—especially when many studies on the same topic contradict each other. More dangerously, Freedman points out that medical research, especially on prescription drugs, is based on animal testing that often produces misleading or outright harmful results. Even randomized controlled trials, considered to be the “gold standard” of clinical studies, often yield wrong information. So what can we believe? The author includes “simple never-fail rules for not being misled by experts,” “characteristics of expert advice we should ignore,” etc., to help guide readers toward right information. In good humor, he also includes an appendix detailing “the ways this entire book might be wrong.”
Informative and engaging, if not groundbreaking news to more cynical readers.