Guiding principles: Says who?

Says who?

My cold was dragging on for what seemed like months. There’s no vaccine for the common cold, and antibiotics don’t work against viruses. All there was to do was wait it out. Of course, there are those herbal supplements that claim to boost your immunity. One label on the drugstore shelf read, “Organic papaya leaf liquid extract… Papaya extract maintains healthy platelets in the bone marrow, and supports immune system function. ” Should I trust it? Would it work? Was it worth $59.99 for 20 doses? When I flipped the bottle over to see the ingredients, at the bottom I read the disclaimer in tiny font: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”  It’s almost as if there was an argument between the herbal supplement company and the FDA right on the label! So who do I believe?

Some people are more inclined to trust the herbal company because it is selling a “natural” product, or maybe because they distrust the government (in this case, the FDA). Others might be more inclined to trust the FDA statement and be wary of the claims of the manufacturer.

As a scientist, my inclination is to have a healthy skepticism. I want to see more than a good hypothesis – I want to see some evidence to back it up.

When considering anyone’s claims I always ask two questions. First, do they have the expertise and authority to make the claims they are making? I want to base my opinions and decisions on information from reliable sources, authoritative sources. I want to make evidence-based judgments rather than emotion-based or gut responses. Sometimes that means I have to simply trust the experts. Other times it means I have to do some leg work and dig into the evidence to decide for myself if it is trustworthy.

Maybe you’re thinking, “that’s nuts – you can’t trust the so-called experts.” But in reality, we do that every day. We drive our car off the lot and onto the freeway at 70 mph assuming it was built properly by the experts. We buy a burger or a veggie burrito at our favorite restaurant trusting that proper food handling methods were used. And when something traumatic happens, like a car accident, we put our trust completely in the surgeons who will be operating on us to save our lives. We trust that they got into medical school honestly, that they didn’t cheat on their medical school exams or their licensing exams, that they have actually been trained to do this type of surgery and have successful experience doing it on actual live patients. We trust the experts every day.

The next question I ask is, “does this person or organization have something to gain from me?” If I believe them, do they get paid? Do they get voted into office? Does their product sell?

My family and I belong to a “health care system”, which gets a bad rap. But one of the things I love about it is that the doctors are employees of the system and get paid the same amount no matter what tests they order or procedures they perform. When our son Ryan had a tumor growing in the bone of his ankle, big enough that it broke the bone from the inside, our doctor had nothing to gain by recommending surgery – he got paid the same whether he performed the surgery or not. His professional advice was not clouded by the possibility of personal gain.

That’s not always the case. Andrew Wakefield was the famous physician who carried out the study that supposedly linked the MMR vaccine to autism. He certainly had the expertise and authority to make the claims that he made. It later came out that he manipulated the experiment, altered the results, and was being paid by a law firm that intended to sue the vaccine manufacturers. The paper, published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, was retracted and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine. Since that publication, vaccination rates, particularly against the measles, have dropped precipitously and children’s lives have been lost.

Today, the fight against vaccination is continued by people like model and actress Jenny McCarthy.

So when you face a controversial topic related to science, nature, or faith, you need to ask whether the person or organization making the claim has the expertise to do so, and whether he or she has anything to gain personally by convincing you.

Applying the “says who?” guideline, I don’t get my scientific information from politicians or medical advice from the pulpit. Similarly, I don’t turn to atheist scientists to get my theology. When it comes to evaluating the world’s claims, identifying expertise and conflict of interest are two of the most important strategies for making the right decision.


Questions for thought

Are you naturally inclined to trust or distrust “authorities”? Where does that fundamental compass originate in your life?

Where do you get your ideas about God from? The internet? Your friends? Your inner voice? Or do you go to theologians and pastors who are experts on God?

Where do you get your scientific information from? Politicians? Pastors? Blogs? Or do you look to scientists to answer your scientific questions?



Lord Jesus, this world seems to be getting increasingly complicated and there are so many voices making so many claims. Give us the wisdom to discern trustworthy people and trustworthy claims. In your name we pray, amen.


About Dave Cummings

Dave Cummings is a husband, father of three, college professor, biologist, and urban outdoorsman. Most importantly, he is a Christ follower.
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