“The problem with facts” – my March 2017 Best of Health article

Best of HealthI’ve recently read an article “The problem with facts” by Tim Harford, an economist, which was originally published in the Financial Times. It rang so many bells for what we see happening in the canine world that I thought it would be interesting to share some of its key points this month.

The underpinning story is the success of the tobacco companies in postponing the day of reckoning caused by the proven link between smoking and cancer. Harford says “The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.

Agnotology is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced and a whole field of study has been started by looking at what happened with Big Tobacco. I have written several times about the claim that we are now living in a post-truth world; agnotology has a lot to teach us about why that is the case and maybe what we can do to counter it.

Think about the claims that have been made about genetic disease in pedigree dogs and how they are more unhealthy than and don’t live as long as cross-breeds. More recently and more topically, we have had the focus on BOAS in brachycephalic breeds with some vets arguing that the only solution is to ban them altogether.

The danger comes if people adopt the 4-stage tactics of the tobacco industry. Stage 1: Engage with the critics and commission more research. It’s what I’ve described as the search for the perfect set of data. Unfortunately, you’ll be waiting a very long time before you get it and, in fact, you’ll never get it.

Stage 2: Complicate the question and sow doubt; for example by saying BOAS might have any number of causes and it’s understanding BOAS that matters, not the fact that these are brachycephalic dogs, bred with abnormally shaped skulls, some of whom have breathing difficulties.

Stage 3: Undermine serious research done by other experts. This involves cherry-picking the results that suit you and actively undermining the validity or reliability of other studies.

Stage 4: Point out that the health of pedigree dogs is a tired, old story and suggest the journalists and campaigners find something new and interesting to say (the problems of designer cross-breeds might be a good alternative for them to focus on?).

What leaders need to do

Those of us in leadership positions in the world of dogs have to avoid falling into these traps. It’s the dogs that matter. We do need to adopt Stage 1 above, but we need just enough research and just enough data to be able to come up with workable solutions that can be implemented. These may be small-scale improvements but, following Dave Brailsford’s 1% Principle, they can add up to something worthwhile.

I have little patience with those who adopt Stages 2, 3 and 4 above. They are simply time-wasting distractions that create a lot of heat but very little light.

Of course, the temptation might be to put even more emphasis on producing facts that prove the truth or disprove the lies. Tim Harford says the trouble with that approach is that “often, a simple untruth can see off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember”. The Brexit one-liner “We send £350 million to the EU every day” is a good, recent example. The myth kept being repeated and that’s what stuck in people’s minds.

The other problem is that facts may just be seen as boring. I’m preparing a seminar presentation on our new X-ray screening programme for back disease in Dachshunds and it would be very tempting to fill it with data on prevalence, risk and decades of research. I suspect that wouldn’t win many hearts and minds when what we want is more people to screen their dogs. More data and more research would simply be a distraction from the real message: too many Dachshunds have back problems and we now have a way to reduce that risk.

Another key challenge of trying to persuade people by giving them facts is that the truth can be threatening. One typical response to this is to “shoot the messenger” and we’ve seen some high-profile cases of that over recent months. Another possible reaction is that people respond in the opposite way to what we want them to do. Introducing any new health screening programme is likely to make some breeders worry that years of hard work establishing “their line” might show them up as having a serious problem. They might then choose not to screen at all, or to screen their dogs “privately” and not submit the results for publication in the official scheme. We know this has happened with hip and elbow scoring and no doubt it goes on with eye testing as well. This is known as the “backfire effect”. Anyone who feels anxious about a screening programme will subconsciously push back by focusing on all the reasons why they think screening is a bad idea. It’s the same with newly identified health conditions; people engage in motivated reasoning to explain away why it’s not really a big issue at all. Both these groups are much more likely to be swayed by someone arguing that “more research is needed” because it delays the need for them to change their behaviour. What it also does, of course, is delay the improvement of dogs’ health.

Curiosity is one answer

One possible answer, according to Harford, is to make people more “scientifically curious” rather than “scientifically literate”. Getting people to understand yet more facts can, as I’ve said, backfire. However, curious people are more likely to seek out new facts; they go looking for information to help them make an informed decision. Who are those curious people in the dog world when it comes to breed health improvement? They are the ones who book onto seminars, the ones who have signed-up to the Kennel Club Academy and the ones engaging in constructive discussion on the many canine Facebook Groups. I’d specifically include the Breed Health Coordinators in that key group of curious people. Most of them aren’t vets, geneticists or epidemiologists, yet they have soaked up a huge amount of knowledge in all these areas (and more) which they willingly and freely share with owners and breeders.

Thankfully, there are plenty of curious people out there. There are over 70 of them coming to our Dachshund seminar on April 2nd to learn about the breed, the genetics of coat and colour and our IVDD screening programme. I’m looking forward to a great day!

Finally, Frank Zappa’s quote seems highly relevant: “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.”

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