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A Second Opinion

I have a sort of dichotomous opinion on experts. In general I trust the consensus of experts in areas I consider to be fact-based, but at the same time I am always ready to look at alternative ideas, and there are some areas where I can’t decide if they should be in the “fact-based” category or not (economics being the prime example).

So I would trust the consensus of experts on climate change for example, because climate science is a fact-based discipline and the consensus is well established. I would not necessarily believe a single climate scientist though, because there are always odd views which are contrary to the majority belief and are usually (but not always) wrong.

And while I would trust scientists I would not trust the consensus of theologians, because theology isn’t primarily a fact-based subject.

That’s not to say that an individual opinion is always right or always wrong, or that non-fact-based groups like theologians are always wrong. I’m just playing the odds here. And I’m trying to establish where a second opinion is most likely to be useful.

In many cases I have seen situations where people have been given really bad health advice by medical experts. I would never trust a single doctor on anything important. I would always research the issue myself and get an opinion from a second medical professional.

Medicine is primarily fact-based, but can lack a lot of formal rigour. It seems to me that a lot of medical opinions are based on hunches rather than carefully considered evidence. Of course, because most doctors have a lot of training and experience their hunches are often right – but they also seem to be often wrong.

And there is a surprisingly high number of doctors (and other health professionals) who support treatments of dubious value. Acupuncture, for example, is quite widely recommended yet the evidence for its effectiveness is highly questionable. And don’t even get me started on the pharmacies which stock homeopathic remedies!

Of course, my distrust of expert advice doesn’t end with doctors, although they are often the most obvious example, probably because they are held in high esteem by society and because their actions often have significant consequences on people’s lives.

The issue arises in relation to all areas where expert advice is required. Many years ago I had to have my Mazda rotary serviced and it was basically “pronounced dead”. I understand the theory of how cars work pretty well but I’m not so good with the real-life practice so I just trusted the mechanic and had a new engine installed.

But it turned out that it was worse than the first one, and after talking to other experts it seems that the first one might have been OK all along. My failure to get a second opinion turned out to be a rather expensive error on that occasion.

Recently I was involved in a situaiton where I provided the second opinion. A computer user was having problems with her computer’s hard disk. She took it to a local retailer who had staff who claimed to be “computer experts”. After some time spent playing with the disk they announced it was unrecoverable. So she brought it to me and I had the data backed up and the disk going again with an hour.

That computer owner could have said goodbye to all her data (she had no backups, of course – they never do) by throwing away the existing disk and buying a new one. Instead she got a second opinion and everything is now OK.

I should emphasise that it’s not always that the first person is incompetent. Sometimes it really is a matter of opinion and sometimes a fresh approach is beneficial. It is very easy to not look at all the options and to form an opinion on something too quickly. I often consult with my colleagues on technical problems where I think a fresh approach might help. It’s just a sensible thing to do.

No human is infallible and mistakes can always happen – even Einstein didn’t get everything right. So second (or third or more) opinions are just common sense.

Here’s another interesting way to look at it: in many mission critical systems (spacecraft, weapons, etc) the critical sub-systems are triplicated. Any major binary decision (like to do something or not) needs 2 out of 3 systems ro recommend it. Maybe people should work that way too, by getting a second and third opinion.

Of course you shouldn’t trust me on all of this. I would encourage you to seek a second opinion!

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