Many people have an opinion about nutrition, and therefore I often say that everyone who eats and drinks is a nutrition expert. But it is also the reason why we have so much conflicting information. A lot of it is not evidence based.
Knowlegde and opinion
If you shout something loud enough, and with enough confidence, people will listen. This is independent of the information you are sharing: it could be total nonsense! We get bombarded with nutrition information through social media. Some of it comes from people who have a solid background in nutrition, some of it even from experts in the field, but the vast majority of information seems to be from people who have “an opinion” but no background in the matter at all. I often say: “everyone who eats and drinks is an expert in nutrition these days”. It appears that these people, not impaired by knowledge, voice their opinion, often passionately, sometimes aggressively through various social media channels. For athletes it is not always easy to separate fact from fiction.
everyone who eats and drinks is an expert in nutrition these days
The Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after two physiologists (Dunning and Kruger) is a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent, are unable to recognize their own incompetence. And worse, they do not only fail to recognize their incompetence, they actually feel confident that they are competent.
In the field of sports nutrition we see this on a daily basis. Someone has read something about a nutrition topic, a diet, a supplement or something else, on social media and has googled a bit more around the topic. Now they are confident to share their experience with the rest of the world. The fact is that they only know a little (and of this little knowledge some of it may be right, and some of it may be wrong, because without detailed and deeper knowledge and good education, it is difficult to distinguish good from bad information). But this bit of knowledge, gives them confidence to shout about their views. Someone who knows nothing at all about a topic will not be very not very confident, and will admit they know nothing about the topic. But those who have a little knowledge, but not enough to realise how much they don’t know, and how much more there is to learn, will have a huge amount of confidence. This is sometimes referred to as Mount Stupid (see infographic). This is also the origin of the statement: “he knows enough to be dangerous”.
he knows enough to be dangerous
A student who is following a class will know this overwhelming feeling of not knowing enough and “how will I ever master this matter”. This is because they have enough knowledge to understand that there is so much more to learn. It then takes a lot of hard work, and a many hours of study, to become familiar with the literature, read around the topic, talk to experts before they start to feel confident again.
In fact, many practitioners are also working on this part of the Dunning Kruger curve (the valley of despair). They have a decent background and are still learning, but they are very aware that there is a lot they still don’t know. It takes many years of experience, reading and learning to gain more confidence again. To these practitioners I would say, you are on a good path! Keep learning! Never stop learning. Read, read, read… and I am not alone in this. I asked Louise Burke, what her top 3 tips would be for beginning practitioners. Watch them on the IOC Diploma for Sports Nutrition youtube channel:
The first problem is that a little knowledge gives people confidence and people can now communicate complete nonsense with a huge extraordinary amount of confidence. We see this in many areas of society and even presidents and world leaders suffer from it sometimes. It is also prevalent in the nutrition field. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the most important factor to convince others, is with how much confidence messages are communicated. As long as nonsense is communicated with enough confidence, other will believe it and be converted.
The number one factor that persuaded the juries was confidence
This was shown in studies where juries in court had to be convinced. The number one factor that persuaded the juries was confidence. This was more important than whether the information communicated was right or wrong. This is where the problem lies. We have people with little knowledge, and often very biased and limited views, communicate nonsense with a huge amount of confidence, whereas many practitioners who have a good background and a much better understanding of the context and possible limitations, who are less confident with their messaging.
Let’s get people off mount stupid and give them less of a platform.
How do we combat this in the nutrition field?
There are no easy solutions but first of all we should teach athletes how to critically evaluate information. Give them the tools to be critical. They should be able to recognise red flags, they should be able to recognise pseudoscience and they should be able to ask the right questions. We should also help practitioners, who are less confident in sharing information to become more confident communicators. Let’s get people off mount stupid and give them less of a platform. Oh, and lets start with ourselves…. Let’s be alert to the fact that EVERYONE can be in this position…. We may all visit mount stupid once in a while, let's not shout when we are there but lets move on to learning more and climbing out of the valley of despair…