Seeking expert medical advice? The Internet seems to invite us to dispense altogether with consulting a doctor in person. When I Googled "expert advice" and "medicine," I got 1,650,000 hits. "Expert advice" and "psychology" garnered 950,000. (Your results may differ.) Sites such as Kasamba and AllExperts offer expert counsel on just about any subject.
We cannot avoid relying on expert opinion. We simply do not have the factual knowledge required to answer all of our questions. Certain fields are so technical, moreover, that only a true expert's opinion will do—and especially for medical decisions, a doctor's advice is crucial. But our very need for such advice is also why claims of expertise so easily lend themselves to abuse, much to the detriment of the person looking for help. Professionals in the advertising industry are well aware of the persuasive powers of such appeals to authority. Consequently, they spend billions of dollars on advertising and employ ostensibly trustworthy—or not so trustworthy—experts who try to lure us into buying products or services. It's one thing to be on our guard when watching commercials, however, and quite another to evaluate the credibility of Web sites, self-help books and the like.
It’s one thing to be on guard with commercials and quite another to evaluate Web sites.
How do we know whom to trust? What makes someone an authority? And what are the limits of expert advice? Following are some guidelines.
Know Who Knows
Relevant expertise. The first question to ask of any claim of competence is this: Is the claimant actually knowledgeable in the relevant field? Behind too many such claims lies a fallacy called argumentum ad verecundiam, Latin for "argument to shame" or "argument to respect." More commonly, this misleading position is called an "inappropriate," or "irrelevant," appeal to authority. The fallacy occurs when the authority making a claim or cited to justify a claim is not a specialist in the proper field, such as when a podiatrist advocates a cholesterol-lowering drug.
Neutrality. Advice is most reliable when it helps the person seeking guidance without providing undue financial gain or other advantage for the expert. We should be wary of an expert who has a vested interest, such as a physician who is affiliated with a company that sells the drug he or she is recommending. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect complete neutrality: a doctor may have participated in researching the drug being recommended, and this experience may have convinced him or her of the medicine's efficacy. Therefore, we must research and evaluate an expert's credentials with care.
Verifying Bona Fides
Degree. Most of the medical Web sites I have visited do not tell you anything about the doctors who provide the advice or the area of medicine in which they specialize. That warrants a background check. It is crucial to look into the institutions where proclaimed experts have received their degrees. The paths of accreditation have been muddled by several hundred "diploma mills"—nonaccredited institutions where a diploma can be purchased or earned with very little work. Diploma mills operate largely online, making it sometimes difficult to determine whether they actually have a physical (and thereby traceable) presence somewhere or which classes (if any) must be passed to obtain the degree. Many diploma mills have names that resemble those of major research institutions, and because an Internet domain name can be purchased for less than $100, it is all too easy to be misled. The U.S. Department of Education provides a list of all accredited institutions.
This article was originally published with the title Getting Good Advice.