Holistic Health & Fertility Coaching - Corporate Nutrition Consulting

How unbiased are your experts really

How unbiased are your experts really

About industry influence on experts and opinion leaders and the importance to use your common sense.

This post was originally triggered by this NY Times article on how academics are used as lobbyists by industries, but it eventually turned into a general sharing of my experience and opinion on "experts". A necessary post, in my view, since often I feel people blindly trust credentials and "experts", even if what they say goes against the most basic common sense.

One of the reasons why I am relatively unimpressed by "scientific research" and follow more of a "common sense" approach in my practice and in my own life, is because I have experienced hands-on how those "unbiased" studies and experts are often not so unbiased after all.

It is a very common practice of companies (also the organic ones as mentioned in the NY Times article below), to make "use" of like-minded academics to give more weight to their messages. So far so good, I am also citing all kinds of doctors and PhD's to give my arguments more weight (since I myself do not have these credentials).

The problem starts when money starts to flow. Not only is the pharma and big-ag world so much stronger financially (which is why you hear proportionally more academics speaking in their favor than against them), but also might it lead to "scientists" becoming biased and maybe looking at data only from one side (or even cherry-picking results).

When I was still working as a Product Manager for Bayer Animal Health, we would actively seek out "opinion leaders" (mainly professors but also some vets very highly admired by their colleagues) and help them to become even more of a "celebrity", e.g. by inviting them to speak at conferences or symposia ("all-in" of course), citing them in press releases, having them write articles... you name it. Of course we would also regularly visit the professors, "educate" them on new products, insist on the importance of new findings (like the worm larvae that before nobody had cared much about) and invite them to expensive, international congresses, where they would then attend one of our product launches (the same is done for "normal" vets or doctors as well btw, depending on how important they are for the company in terms of sales potential). And while of course they would still argue that they stayed "unbiased" and formed their own opinion based on the objective analysis of the provided data (which in some cases I am sure didn't take longer than listening to the convincing and friendly Product Manager or Sales Rep), it was still OUR data (or the data of industry competitors) they based this opinion on - because WE (and our industry competitors) had the money, people and time to finance studies (I, as Metabolance or the farmers cooperative I source my products from could not do that...). And while I never had the impression that sponsoring studies influenced their results (although I am sure this can happen), the field of research was of course already pre-defined and limited to our areas of interest (obviously we would not finance a study investigating the effect of coconut oil in the prevention of intestinal parasites in cats and dogs).

At this point I quickly deviate to the manipulation of study results. As you might have heard, the saying goes "don't trust any study you didn't fake yourself" - and for a reason. To be fair I have to say that if this happens or not highly depends on the responsible people: I remember that the manager responsible for "approval" of my marketing materials here in Brussels would be very strict and not allow me to simply copy product brochures produced by Animal Health International (which you would assume to be sound & valid), because they had "cherry-picked" study results, cut certain graphics at favorable points or left out unfavorable data... But in most other countries the managers would not even question the provided data or take the effort to double-check - and so there was no problem to take over that information... And here I am not even speaking yet of flawed studies (mostly poor design) or misinterpreted studies, which adds an additional dimension... Unfortunately most of us are not able to differentiate right from wrong or poorly designed from well designed studies, which is where the value of peer-review comes in - at least supposedly. Unfortunately a lot of bad science has been published under this umbrella as well and afterwards turned out flawed... (read more here).

But to come back to our academics: Of course scientific research IS important and of course we should listen to the experts. My point is to not do that blindly, since you never know if they are really as unbiased as they say (and maybe even believe) they are. Because unfortunately - and this is a very important point to make - even without being directly influenced by industry reps, many doctors in the health or nutrition world are exposed to biased information already during their studies. This is due to the tight links between these companies and government and as a result also education content and materials. Often the same professors we used as opinion leaders for our products would also teach at universities... oh and we would every year organize a "cheese and wine" event for the last year of vet students...

Once they are graduated, all of the above mentioned regarding the special treatment of professors of course also applies to the majority of NORMAL doctors or vets, only on a "lower" level. They are also visited and "educated" regularly by sales reps, get invited to congresses (where most of them do NOT attend the lectures, but go discover the cities, which are usually nice locations), enjoy discounts (fortunately the times when they could choose from a catalog featuring TVs or dish washers with their product orders are more and more over, although still practiced in certain countries, even if illegal). Something to remember whenever you visit a doctor and he wants to prescribe you a certain treatment or medication. I am not saying they lack moral, just that the information they have received is highly one-sided.

So in conclusion, don't believe everything just because it was said by a doctor or there is a "study" proofing it. I can probably find you a study for each and every single argument or opinion out there. Therefore it is a good idea to ALWAYS use your own common sense and critical thinking as well. You can show me 1000 studies "proofing" the advantages of margarine over butter, I will still stick to butter as a product of nature that has been produced and consumed by people for many centuries as opposed to a mixture of highly processed, chemically extracted vegetable oils produced in a lab or factory (I spare you the description of margarine making at this place, but it is not pretty). And I can find you the "pro-butter" studies as well of course... (which fortunately start to come out more and more).

You are much smarter than you think, if only you trust our own inner expert and intuition that know exactly what's good and right for you and the rest of this planet! My little expert tells me that GMO's or pesticides are definitely not. What about yours?

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