Innovative disagreement

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

– Rumi


The debate raging about what constitutes a healthy diet can be confusing for those of us in the dangerous position of having only a little bit of knowledge.

Professor Tim Noakes, a top rated scientist who has a lifetime achievement award from the National Research Foundation for his pioneering work in sports science, has in the past year weighed in against the establishment by challenging the so called “balanced diet” or “food pyramid” as is popular in the United States.

At the December 2012 University of Cape Town centenary debate entitled “Cholesterol is not an important risk factor for heart disease and current dietary recommendations do more harm than good”, a lively and sometimes confusing battle of the scientists raged between Dr Jacques E Rossouw and Prof Noakes.

I was struck by the shrugs and sighs and comments passed under people’s breath throughout the debate. Clearly many of the audience were colleagues from the medical fraternity and while it seemed only a few were supportive of Noakes’ views, the overriding feeling coming out of the debate was frustration and exasperation. When the moderator of the debate, Prof Jimmy Volmink, the Dean of the medical school concluded the evening by insinuating that Noakes was essentially a “bullshitter”, I wondered whether there was a more creative way to move beyond bitter and sometime acrimonious disputes of science.

The answer may lie in an approach from Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

One of the most influential scientists in his field, he has had his fair share of conflict with people who disagree with the work he is doing. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow he says, “On a few occasions I have responded to criticisms that I thought were grossly misleading, because a failure to respond can be interpreted as conceding error, but I have never found the hostile exchanges instructive. In search of another way to deal with disagreements, I have engaged in a few “adversarial collaborations,” in which scholars who disagree on the science agree to write a jointly authored paper on their differences, and sometimes conduct research together. In especially tense situations, the research is moderated by an arbiter.”

He goes on to say, “My most satisfying and productive adversarial collaboration was with Gary Klein, the intellectual leader of an association of scholars and practitioners who do not like the kind of work I do. They call themselves students of Naturalistic Decision Making, or NDM, and mostly work in organisations where they often study how experts work.” The NDMers adamantly reject the approach that Kahneman’s takes to the area of intuition accusing him of being too focused on failure and influenced by artificial experiments rather than the NDMers approach of studying actual people.

With the battle lines similarily drawn, adversarial collaboration would seem to me to be a constructive and creative way to move the debate on diet forward.

In the case of Kahneman and Klein above, their joint paper in American Psychologist (Sep 2009) is entitled, “Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree”. Exploring the field of intuition (the type covered by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink) the abstract lays out their approach.

This article reports on an effort to explore the differences between two approaches to intuition and expertise that are often viewed as conflicting: heuristics and biases (HB) and naturalistic decision making (NDM). Starting from the obvious fact that professional intuition is sometimes marvelous and sometimes flawed, the authors attempt to map the boundary conditions that separate true intuitive skill from overconfident and biased impressions. They conclude that evaluating the likely quality of an intuitive judgment requires an assessment of the predictability of the environment in which the judgment is made and of the individual’s opportunity to learn the regularities of that environment. Subjective experience is not a reliable indicator of judgment accuracy.

Could Professor Noakes jointly write a paper on the subject with one of his adversaries. I believe this would offer an opportunity for much learning both by those involved and by the rest of us interested in the debate. It would also confirm my hunch that while there are differences, there are also many areas of agreement.

Disagree and move the debate forward










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Author: Dale Williams

Dale is based in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa from where he maintains connections with people all over the world through his portfolio life.