Experts2: Medical Doctors

There is one category of people in our society whose members are automatically given the accolade of being regarded as experts, and treated as such—people who have medical qualifications. We are automatically urged to consult our medical practitioners about any issue that has even the vaguest of connections with medicine. We know that scientific research underlies many of the  conclusions that make up the body of “known medical facts,” and we pay doctors the further compliment of assuming that their expertise extends to science.
Interestingly, most qualified doctors do not actually have doctorates, and people who do have doctorates outside medicine are not usually granted the same status. I have come across many research projects which include both psychiatrists who have not earned doctorates and psychologists who have, and in nearly all cases the psychiatrist was in charge, because he had a medical degree.
It is only human to derive satisfaction from the sort of status I have described. And it is also human to believe that one has earned high status when one has it.  In the case of medical doctors, there is some little justification for these responses. After all, entry into medical courses is highly competitive, and previous academic success is usually a major factor in achieving that entry. Medical students know that they are academically brilliant, and most probably are, and certainly believe themselves to be, extremely intelligent.
Sadly, academic intelligence is not the only kind of intelligence there is, and there are many medics who are clearly not superior in, for example, social intelligence. Also, irrespective of intelligence, medics are no less liable to human weaknesses than are other people; weaknesses such as prejudice. For example, recent research has demonstrated very clearly that symptoms reported by women are far more likely to be ascribed by their doctor to psychological causes than are equivalent symptoms reported by men.
As I said, medics are credited with expertise in science. I am sorry to have to say that very few of them, including many who have impressive publication records, really deserve that credit. The fact is that most medical courses have difficulty in finding enough teaching hours to cover what those organising them rightly see as essential medical information: students are in general left to acquire “non-content” subjects like scientific methodology and statistical analysis by their own efforts, except for some “practical” exercises supervised by people who themselves, in general, seem not to have been taught these subjects properly either.
Unfortunately, scientific methodology and statistics are appallingly difficult for most people to properly grasp. In most scientifically oriented psychology schools, honors students have, by the time they finish a four-year degree, attended hundreds of lectures on these subjects, and carried out many practical exercises. Having taught scientific methodology and statistics for more than forty years, I believe with reasonable competence, I have sadly concluded that, by the end of their courses, the majority of the students still had not fully understood and integrated what they were taught.
It seems scientific thinking is very far from natural, even to highly intelligent people. Even the simple idea that, before a fact is known, someone has to find it out, is not a natural inhabitant of most most people’s minds. People by the thousand buy books telling what the contents of dreams symbolize, or seriously take note of what the crystals in the head shop window are described as providing, without their ever wondering where this information came from. Even Aristotle, a man whose logical and scientific writing was seen for many centuries as pointing the way forward, did not fully grasp the point. He taught that men had more teeth than women. It never occurred to him to count the teeth in his and his wife’s mouths. I shall have, in later postings, much more to say about the difficulty of science and statistics, and its implications for who may appropriately be seen, and see themselves, as experts.

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One thought on “Experts2: Medical Doctors

  1. Working in an academic department full of medicos as I do, and often have in the past, I couldn’t agree more with your thesis. Picture a Venn diagram – some clinicians are scientists, and some scientists are clinicians, but …

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