Writing in Postmedia papers, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley says we risk drowning in a sea of advice if we keep listening to experts who “know more and more about less and less”.

Crowley offers a reminder that just because there’s more information than ever on everything from eating kale to getting more Vitamin D doesn’t necessarily mean we’re getting any smarter.

Brian Lee Crowley, June 20, 2014

So much advice, so little time.

Do you ever feel paralysed in the midst of a great buffet, wondering what it is safe to eat and what to avoid?

Does it seem like every day you are battered with new and contradictory claims about the latest wonder nutrient or the common food that silently kills?

Some years ago oat bran was touted as the dietary saviour of humankind. It would lower cholesterol, fight heart disease and combat colon cancer. The effect on demand for this hitherto almost worthless commodity was so powerful that the price on world markets shot up. Fortunes were made.

And lost.  After the first fine flowering of demand came the inevitable debunkers who pooh-poohed the original claims and the faddish public moved on: to kale, the Atkins diet, buffalo milk, gluten-free or organic vegetables. Every one promised the moon, produced at best modest benefits and sometimes real harms and then sank from sight. Occasionally they return as pale shadows of their former selves, nostalgic reminders of a bygone time like bell-bottoms and sideburns.

Nor is this pattern limited to food. We are advised to stay out of the sun, but then scolded for inadequate naturally generated Vitamin D. We are exhorted to exercise more, but clucked at disapprovingly by the neighbours if we let our kids walk a few blocks to school. We struggle to kill every microbe within reach and then learn this damages our immune systems. Time magazine’s cover this week exhorts us to eat butter. Who knew?

Such are the dangers of the modern world, where new information is uncovered and discoveries made many times a day. In fact a few years ago it was estimated that the total body of human knowledge, everything known by people, was doubling every 12 years or so. In really fast developing areas, like robotics, genomics and nanotechnology, the rate of doubling may be more like 18 months. Doubtless the rate of increase is accelerating in virtually every field because the world is wealthier and we can afford to devote more time, money and labour to ever more specialized endeavours.

But if you are labouring under the misapprehension that we are smarter as a result, let me rain ever so slightly on your parade.

While the sum total of human knowledge is burgeoning exponentially, the instrument with which we sort through that knowledge and try to make sense of it—the human brain—has not changed its essential capacity in the few thousand years of recorded history. The brain’s “channel capacity,” our ability to think about several ideas or bits of information simultaneously, to mull over their relationships and implications, is relatively fixed.

The implication of course is that human beings are not getting smarter, in the sense of mastering more of the total of human knowledge, than in the past. In fact because our knowledge is expanding so fast, but our minds are not, we are getting relatively more stupid all the time.

And what each of us knows is more and more highly specialized. As a friend of mine from Newfoundland used to say, you end up knowing everything about the left side of the tsetse fly, but nothing about the right side.

Should we throw up our hands in despair? Not at all. But we should stop listening so hard to experts who know more and more about less and less and will be contradicted by another expert next week. We won’t go too far wrong if we try to live according to rules that worked quite well for generations. Everything in moderation. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. You won’t get something for nothing. And just because it works in theory doesn’t mean it will in practice.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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