Who says experts know more than politicians?

January 25, 2010

This is a men's imaging center and the décor is man cave. We bought most of the furniture at garage sales and have no debt to service.

"So has your men's imaging center folded yet?"

"Folded? No-it's been a huge success!"

"What? How?"

"I'll show you. It's just around the corner."

"But it's almost midnight."

"Not a problem. It's open till 4 a.m."

"This place looks like my basement and smells like stale beer. Who would come here for medical care?"

"All those guys would."

"Oh my god, is that a fistfight?"

"Yeah, isn't it great?"

"What's going on here?!"

"How much did you spend on your women's imaging center with all its fancy décor?"

"$2.3 million."

"And didn't you tell me you were losing money on every mammogram you did but were hoping to make it up with other services?"

"Yes, but….."

"But nothing. This is a men's imaging center and the décor is man cave. We bought most of the furniture at garage sales and have no debt to service. We've got sawdust on the floors, 500 channels of cable sports, and a liquor license. After a few drinks a prostate ultrasound doesn't seem so bad. And you would be amazed at how little provocation it can take to induce best friends into a fistfight over a football game when they're drunk. We make a fortune on all the imaging studies that they then need-not to mention the alcohol sales. After most bars close we can keep selling medicinal alcohol by prescription! For the Super Bowl we're considering renting a second mobile CT scanner."

"This is insane!"

"Insane? We are cleaning up. We're going to make a killing with our Men's Imaging Center franchises at British rugby stadiums. Now those hooligans are insane."

When did breasts become such a political football? It was in 1992, with passage of the Mammography Quality Standards Act. I wish I had had the franchise for imaging all those individuals brutalized when the scrum over mammograms happened recently.

That mayhem then quickly spread to the hooligans in the stands when the new guidelines for Pap smears came out immediately after. People were screaming bloody murder at the experts that served on both those panels. "They just hate women." Brutal! I can still remember when people were denouncing doctors who suggested women get mammograms at all, citing the risk of cancer and trauma to their breasts, or charging that they just wanted to make money. Frankly, if they recommended fewer prostate exams, men would be dancing in the streets and the stock market would soar. Go figure.

Now I am not smart enough to know the right answers to everything in life, nor are most of us, and that's why we all end up having to depend on experts or celebrities. So I don't mind seeing a woman being interviewed on the news saying she doesn't trust the science used by the experts on the mammogram task force and she is going to trust her TV guru instead. But I have a completely different reaction when I see political leaders on TV in front of the Capitol building saying that those doctors just don't know what they're talking about and calling them pinheads (this from people who are often scientifically illiterate). Many politicians actually take pride in denigrating science and try to marginalize any scientist who doesn't meet their political agenda or when they need to get a sound bite on TV.

Our political leaders should be extolling the virtues of science and education, since these have accounted for the bulk of America's growth, well-being, and prosperity over the past century, rather than fomenting distrust in anything that they themselves do not understand. This might explain why a 2006 study by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 25% of Americans did not know that the earth circles the sun. Don't feel bad, a 2007 study done by Kings College London found that greater than 50% of those surveyed did not know where their heart was. I wonder what those results would have been in Congress?

So let's take a little test.

1. Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not.

Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

A) Yes B) No C) Cannot be determined.

2. A bat and a ball cost a $1.10 total. The bat costs a $1 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

These are test questions from Keith Stanovich's latest book “What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought.” In the November issue of Scientific American Mind he writes, “It is useful to get a handle on dysrationalia and its causes because we are beset by problems that require increasingly more accurate, rational responses. In the 21st century, shallow processing can lead physicians to choose less effective medical treatments, can cause people to fail to adequately assess risks in their environment, can lead to misuse of information in legal proceedings, and can make parents resist vaccinating their children. Millions of dollars are spent on unneeded projects by government and private industry when decision makers are dysrationalic, billions are wasted on quack remedies, unnecessary surgery is performed, and costly financial judgments are made.”

Dr. Stanovich demonstrates how extensive research into how the brain works has shown that “humans are cognitive misers because our basic tendency is to default to the processing mechanisms that require less computational effort, even if they are less accurate.”

It takes years of training to overcome this weakness and learn to examine problems logically and analytically. So it is not surprising that more than 80% of people get the above problems wrong and answer C and 10¢. It doesn't matter if Anne is married or not, the answer will still be A. And if the ball costs 10¢, then the bat is only 90¢ more, not a $1, so the ball has to cost 5¢.

The fact of the matter is that our understanding of cancer, its treatment, and outcomes are changing and we need to adapt rather than stay locked into old paradigms.

Rather than taking the time to really study, analyze, and understand facts, people, politicians, and even doctors tend to make quick but not necessarily accurate judgments-to everyone's detriment. So selling alcohol in a Men's Imaging Center might sound like a good idea at first but probably isn't.

Even so, I am applying for a business method patent. I wonder if Mike Tyson will endorse it?