One of the more enlightening, and terrifying, books to come out in the last 5 years is Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise. In clear prose, with cogent argument and substantiating evidence, the author makes the case that the proliferation of misconceptions, delusions, and bizarrely wrong beliefs about the world in every domain, from science to politics, reflects powerful and pervasive elements of American culture. Access to accurate information is easier than ever, yet misinformation thrives. The problem is not that the truth isn’t available to us, it’s that we actively reject it. In Nichols’ words,
These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything.
[The real problem is] we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything…It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.
This is a phenomenon I have wrestled with for many years in my efforts to promote science-based veterinary medicine. Giving people facts and evidence is not sufficient because, as Nichols says, “When feelings matter more than rationality or facts, education is a doomed enterprise.” Believers and promoters of pseudoscience in medicine are armored by feelings and conviction against any inconvenient facts or evidence. And the average pet owner is at a disadvantage since they can’t always judge the relative merits of scientific claims or data for themselves, and they are left deciding which source of information to trust or, in the worst case, simply choosing to believe the claim that best fits their pre-existing world view.
A recent survey of pet owners investigating attitudes about raw and commercial coked pet diets illustrates this death of expertise quite starkly.
Empert-Gallegos A, Hill S, Yam PS. Insights into dog owner perspectives on risks, benefits, and nutritional value of raw diets compared to commercial cooked diets. PeerJ. 2020;8:e10383. doi:10.7717/peerj.10383
The facts are clear and not seriously questioned by actual experts, including veterinary nutritionists and most mainstream veterinarians. Raw diets have no proven benefits and any claimed for them are based on pure anecdote or theory. Raw diets do, however, have clearly established risks, including causing potentially deadly food-borne illness and often being nutritionally inadequate. The evidence to support these facts can be found in the many posts I have written on this subject.
Unfortunately, these facts are inconvenient for people who choose to feed such diets, and their reaction to being confronted with them is simply to redefine themselves as the “real experts.” Among owners feeding conventional cooked diets, 78% felt their veterinarian had a high level of knowledge about nutrition (4 or 5 on a 5-point scale). In this age when anyone can declare themselves an expert based on an internet search or some other informal way of investigating a subject, 65% of owners feeding cooked diets rated themselves as highly knowledgeable about pet nutrition, at the same level of knowledge, in fact, as their veterinarian. It is pretty unlikely that a majority of these owners have degrees in animal health or have taken formal instruction in animal nutrition, so this is a pretty unreasonable assessment. But it gets worse.
Of the raw feeders, 86% declared themselves highly knowledgeable (4-5 out of 5) while only 45% of them credited their veterinarian with this level of expertise. Raw feeders are no more likely than other pet owners to have degrees in animal health or nutrition, but they do have stronger feelings about the subject and are more likely to have investigated web sites or books for the general public making nutrition claims. These owners, whose beliefs are the least consistent with the facts, have the greatest confidence in their own knowledge and the least confidence in the expertise of actual veterinary professionals. This is unlikely to lead to good feeding choices or the best outcomes for pets.
The irrationality behind this false sense of expertise is illustrated by other findings in this study. Raw feeders rated commercial and homemade raw diets as more nutritious and safer than commercial cooked diets, both beliefs inconsistent with the facts. These owners likely imagine they have some special knowledge or insight into the “real truth” about pet food that owners feeding cooked diets, or even veterinarians, lack. This insight was not evidence, however, in their free-text answers to questions about the reasons for feeding raw diets, which included many vague references to unproven health benefits and terms consistent with unscientific beliefs about nutrition, such as “natural,” “processed,” “chemicals” and so on.
These owners clearly believe strongly that raw diets are healthier than cooked diets, but the strength of this belief, and the confidence in their own expertise in the subject, are based on misinformation and falsehoods. As Mulder would say, “The Truth is Out There,” along with the evidence to support it. But truth and facts aren’t nearly as effective at generating belief as the vapid handwaving and passionate proselytizing of raw food advocates. Ultimately, if people choose belief and feelings over science and expertise, they can maintain any belief regardless of the facts. Raw feeding, like so many other alternative veterinary practices, is just one more illustration of this pervasive and malignant cultural problem.