randolph_nesse's picture
Research Professor of Life Sciences, Director (2014-2019), Center for Evolution and Medicine, Arizona State University; Author, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings
Truth does not reside with smart university experts

I used to believe that you could find out what is true by finding the smartest people and finding out what they think. However, the most brilliant people keep turning out to be wrong.  Linus Pauling's ideas about Vitamin C are fresh in mind, but the famous physicist Lord Kelvin did more harm in 1900 with calculations based on the rate of earth's cooling that seemed to show that there had not been enough time for evolution to take place. A lot of the belief that smart people are right is an illusion caused by smart people being very convincing… even when they are wrong.

I also used to believe that you could find out what is true by relying on experts — smart experts — who devote themselves to a topic.  But most of us remember being told to eat margarine because it is safer than butter — then it turned out that trans-fats are worse.  Doctors told women they must use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to prevent heart attacks — but HRT turned out to increase heart attacks.  Even when they are not wrong, expert reports often don't tell you what is true.  For instance, read reviews by experts about antidepressants; they provide reams of data, but you won't often find the simple conclusion that these drugs are not all that helpful for most patients.  It is not just others; I shudder to think about all the false beliefs I have unknowingly but confidently passed on to my patients, thanks to my trust in experts. Everyone should read the article by Ioannidis, "Why most published research findings are false."

Finally, I used to believe that truth had a special home in universities.  After all, universities are supposed to be devoted to finding out what is true, and teaching students what we know and how to find out for themselves. Universities may be best show in town for truth pursuers, but most stifle innovation and constructive engagement of real controversies, not just sometimes, but most of the time, systematically. 

How can this be? Everyone is trying so hard to encourage innovation!  The Regents take great pains to find a President who supports integrity and creativity, the President chooses exemplary Deans, who mount massive searches for the best Chairs. Those Chairs often hire supporters who work in their own areas, but what if one wants to hire someone doing truly innovative work, someone who might challenge established opinions?  Faculty committees intervene to ensure that most positions go to people just about like themselves, and the Dean asks how much grant overhead funding a new faculty member will bring in.  No one with new ideas, much less work in a new area or critical of established dogmas, can hope to get through this fine sieve.  If they do, review committees are waiting. And so, by a process of unintentional selection, diversity of thought and topic is excluded.  If it still sneaks in, it is purged.  The disciplines become ever more insular. And universities find themselves unwittingly inhibiting progress and genuine intellectual engagement.  University leaders recognize this and hate it, so they are constantly creating new initiatives to foster innovative interdisciplinary work.  These have the same lovely sincerity as new diets for the New Year, and the same blindness to the structural factors responsible for the problems.

Where can we look to find what is true?  Smart experts in universities are a place to start, but if we could acknowledge how hard it is for truth and its pursuers to find safe university lodgings, and how hard it is for even the smartest experts to offer objective conclusions, we could begin to design new social structures that would support real intellectual innovation and engagement.