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Expert Tease

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 130 – December 2006

“We’re living in an era when a lot of prestige is given to professional expertise. People have a real responsibility not to claim more than they can offer.”
– Noam Chomsky

As I am writing about experts, and as I would hate to ruffle too many feathers and thus shoot myself in the foot, I will, from the start, say that some experts, especially the ones who write for your favourite magazine, Positive Health, know their stuff and don’t dare venture beyond their field of expertise.

Experts are human after all, and humans are not perfect: they are both good and bad, in various proportions. They can be fallible, gullible, conditioned and biased, or they can be bought, and have vested interests that will influence their thoughts and ideologies. And of course, they can lie. The practice of lying by experts and PRs is euphemistically called ‘spin-doctoring’ which sounds much better.

Nicholas Murray Butler said that “an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less”. There is some truth in this since, in order to learn one subject in depth, you have to neglect many others. Not everybody has the brain of Goethe who, it has been said, was one of the last men to know everything. The opposite of an expert is a jack of all trades who is master of none. Both types are needed and complement each other.

But some experts, afraid of losing face, cast their net too wide and give opinions about things on which they know next to nothing. I recently experienced an example of this pseudo-expertise when, a few months ago, I was interviewed by a journalist writing an article for a popular newspaper about the Mézières’ method. Despite my best efforts at explaining, the result concentrated heavily on its practice and ignored the principles behind it, which meant that the information it contained was incomplete. It is, of course, the prerogative of the journalist to be selective. But, as is customary nowadays, next to the article was a little box entitled ‘Ask the experts’. The expert in question was a ‘specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist’. The qualification is enough in itself to impress and inspire awe. I may be doing this learned expert an injustice, but I have reasons to think that she did not know much more about the Mézières’ method than what was described in the adjacent article, that is, as much as one can glean from a short article in a popular newspaper.

Nevertheless, it is an irony that the expert, after agreeing that Mézières was right, employed most of her allotted space to extol the concept of so-called core muscles, which is the current panacea for backache. Ironic, because I have devoted two whole columns in Positive Health to explaining why the concept of core muscles is not borne out by Mézières’ discoveries. The core muscle strengthening regime has spread like wild fire, to such an extent that if you go to fitness clubs these days you would think you were in a kindergarten, with so many people playing with big balls and on all-fours exercising their core muscles. Unfortunately, you can be on all-fours, squeezing these magic muscles until the cows come home, but you will not be doing much to improve your aching back.

Our expert says that ‘relaxing’ the muscles is not enough to deal effectively with backache; that you must also get the core muscles working to support the spine. This betrays a lack of knowledge about the Mézières’ method, as a Mézièrist does not ‘relax’ muscles but re-distributes muscle tone throughout the body so that there is a decrease in the ones with an excess of it (always the same ones), and an increase in the ones who have a lack of it.

The hypertonic muscles can distort the spine in so many varied and complex ways that it is unhelpful to offer such a simple, tailor-made, uniform, suits everybody exercise, such as core muscles strengthening, and expect it to be a magic solution in every case of backache. A specialist in Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy should know better.

Experts can be a great help, but it does not mean that we should trust them blindly. Some people qualify as experts just because they express the consensus of the powerful or the current fashionable orthodoxy. Ultimately, you have to do your own homework and think for yourself by using your analytical skills. Read everything with a healthy dose of scepticism, including of course my writings.

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