It's often difficult to tell if someone is being honest and truthful, while it's easy to be impressed with credentials (like MD, PhD or JD). A factor more likely to impact the usefulness of someone's statements has to do with bias. With respect to knowledge and bias, I break people down into three categories: Advocates, Skeptics and Seekers.
An Advocate is someone whose focus is to prove they are right.
A Skeptic is someone whose focus is to prove someone else wrong.
A Seeker is someone whose focus is tounderstand something.
Most people use all three perspectives at various times, depending on the issue, their experience and the bias they have due to their unique knowledge and belief. In fact, it may be healthy to adopt each of these positions in various situations. However, it is also important to understand the bias people have when evaluating the usefulness of their point of view. This consideration is just as useful for self improvement as it is to guard us from charlatans, hustlers and crooks (both private and public).
If someone's main agenda is to be an advocate, then every fact, every statistic, every nuance is oriented toward boosting this agenda. This goal (proving they are right) becomes far more important than anything else. Though advocates are usually passionate in their beliefs, they are often incapable of considering views that conflict with their own, especially with an issue on which they've taken a firm stand in the past. The inertia of defending past opinions is something that tempts all of us to be advocates, even in light of contradictory evidence.
Imagine the President of Pepsi-Cola, for example, admitting he might prefer the taste of Coke. His job depends on his being an advocate. This doesn't make him a bad person, but this bias should be considered when we listen to his claims that his product is superior. He simply cannot admit that someone else might have a better product. The same goes for the President of Coca-Cola.
Virtually everyone in the political process is an advocate for something. In fact, it is the nature of legal and political systems to be biased in favor of advocates. The problem with advocates is they generally tend to be closed to ideas that conflict with those they already hold. Such is the nature of advocacy.
War is legalized murder. Because there is a grand, noble purpose (we are good; the other side is evil), what would normally be an unacceptable act is made acceptable by the use of advocacy. Most people wouldn't support the raw murder of one human by another, acting in his/her own self interest. But,the vast majority of them will support, fund and even defend the mass murder of thousands of people, if they can only be convinced that those thousands are part of some inhuman machine that needs to be destroyed. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hurst so inflamed the American people against Cuba, he is credited with starting the Spanish American War. His "yellow journalism" was a brilliant, if destructive, example of advocacy a century ago.
Politicians, bankers and military contractors, not to mention generals and admirals, profit greatly from war. Like the President of Coke, they have to justify their position morally, legally and for public relations. And today's news media, who also profit by telling compelling stories of heroism and patriotism, comply with the official party line the military feeds them. To not do so is to be excluded from their bread and butter on the hottest news story of the day. So honest, sincere, good people support mass murder because of advocacy. Legal, popular, "feel good" advocacy. Blind patriotism can be a particularly destructive form of advocacy.
It's no accident that World War II and the Persian Gulf War were enormously popular in the U.S.,and the Vietnam War was not. The difference was censorship (WWII and Persian Gulf) versus a free press (Vietnam), as much as than anything else. p>
Skeptics are no less biased than advocates, but their perspective is different. James Randi, the famous magician, escape artist and skeptic, delights in exposing various mystical claims as ridiculous. He shows how many such claims are easily performed as simple magic tricks, rather than something spiritual and mysterious.
Skeptics are very useful for testing the practical feasibility of ideas once they have been created, but are death to the creative process itself. When trying to come up with something new, don't ever allow a skeptic in the group. Instead, during the brainstorming process, get all the positive, even goofball ideas out on the table, without skepticism or criticism. One bad idea may lead to a good one, but not if the bad idea is criticized right off the bat. Only when the brainstorming is over, and you move into a phase of testing the idea for utility, do you want to bring in the skeptic to see if it will really work.
Obviously, it is very healthy to be a skeptic at times. The extreme skeptic however, is someone so dedicated to proving others wrong, that s/he rarely acknowledges anything that is right. This can be a terribly depressing, negative influence on people, and is best kept in check, like other extreme emotions.
Perhaps the worst part of skepticism is its negative, chilling affect on progress and the advance of human knowledge. I can't think of a better example of this than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
According to Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw (world famous life extension experts), the FDA kills almost twice as many people each year as died in the entire Vietnam War. This is the result of not only using the height of skepticism to prevent life-saving and life-enhancing drugs onto the legal market, but also their restriction of truthful, non-misleading information about existing products.
After several years in which emergency room doctors realized that chewing and swallowing two aspirin could dramatically reduce the severity of heart attacks, aspirin manufacturers are finally beginning to advertise these health benefits.
These claims are "illegal," according to the FDA, which doesn't allow such claims for uses it hasn't approved. However, due in part to lawsuits from Durk and Sandy andothers like Dr. Julian Whitaker, M.D., aspirin makers are finally getting legal advice from their lawyers thatthe FDA doesn't have a leg to stand on. In other words, the intimidation tactics of the FDA are finally being tested by some brave souls who are more interested in saving lives than covering asses.
It shouldn't be a surprise that biased people use both advocacy to promote their own beliefs and skepticism to belittle the beliefs of others. These two biases compliment each other well, as each allows people not to look to answers, but simply to stay in the comfortable ruts they find themselves.
Seekers don't care about advocacy or skepticism. Instead, they are seeking an answer. I hesitate to call this "truth," since that word itself is used by so many advocates and skeptics to lend credence to their positions. Also, the word, "truth" has so many connotations and often confuses religous belief with proven facts. I shy away from this confusing, contradictory word where possible.
A good example of a seeker is a gentleman named Ashton Embry, whose son was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Mr. Embry, a geologist by profession, began investigating everything he could find about the disease, and found mostly the diseases of extreme advocacy and skepticism.
He read all the published research he could find about MS, and developed a set of seven criteria that any explanation for the disease would have to meet to explain the observed data. He found that the most popular medical explanation of the environmental cause (virus) satisfied only a few of these critera. Incredibly, he found the most astounding bias from interpreting evidence in favor of preconceived outcomes. To his credit, he did not latch onto either the "genetics only" or "environment only" paradigms so popular with both traditional and alternative practitioners alike. Studies of twins and immigrants with MS made it clear that both genetics and environment played a factor, and his goal was to isolate the environmental factor.
His answer? Diet. Not that this is the only factor, as genetics and other environmental aspects also contribute; but he concluded that diet was the only thing that satisfied all seven criteria. This simple idea, made more complicated by each individual's unique dietary and allergic profile, seems to be one of the few unbiased efforts to find out what to do about this dreadful disease. I've since had this confirmed by a new e-mail friend who has used diet to control her genetic MS tendencies, and has recommended the same to a friend in France (where the diet is high fat, etc.), with very promising results.
To be fair to the medical profession, I will also criticize alternative medical practitioners. They tend to latch onto some simplistic mystical approach, perhaps with some evidence, and ignore other approaches that might be helpful. One of the things I've learned about medical knowledge is that what is good or right for one person might not be right for another. This is why I think individual testing of blood, urine, lifestyle and genetic history will be the future of health care. I hesitate to call this "medicine," since that word is so hopelessly mired in the worst of advocacy and skepticism, often to the patient's detriment.
Obviously large drug companies don't want to accept the idea of diet as a cause, for the same reason the President of Coca Cola can't accept Pepsi. Likewise, many medical doctors rely so much on existing regulatory and legal structures to protect themselves from malpractice suits, that they prefer a "safe" answer to one that is effective for the patient.
Ashton Embry is a shining example of what one person, unbiased with the diseases of extreme advocacy or skepticism, can do. Another thing that impressed me about Mr. Embry was his recognition that he might not have the final answer. When better information comes along, he will change his belief if necessary. This is the true spirit of a seeker, which unfortunately is as rare among scientists as it is among mystics. Advocacy funding of scientific research (both public and private) is a primary reason for this corruption of the scientific method.
I encourage you to read Mr. Embry's paper on the web at:
If more medical issues were approached in this manner, the multi-billion dollar industries that depend upon and encourage disease would more likely focus on solutions instead of protecting existing (often wrong) beliefs and practices. Of course, the legal community shares as much responsibility as the medical community for this sorry state of affairs. Doctors are so worried about lawsuits (understandably so), the safest thing they can do is what everyone else says to do.Never mind if it's the right thing for a patient; it will keep them out of jail even if the patient dies. Oncologists (cancer doctors) are especially bad about this, since most of their patients are expected to die anyway.
The purpose of this essay is not to suggest that all advocates and skeptics are evil, or that only pure seekers are worth listening to. As I said, we all experience advocacy and skepticism at times, and these tools can be useful. However, understanding the inherent bias in these two positions can help us to avoid or minimize their negative effects. It can also help us recognize these traits in others, upon whom we depend for information. A healthy balance between advocacy and skepticism might be a good thing to strive for much of the time, especially if we spend too much of our time enslaved to one or the other.
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