Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A provocative question

At last after years of blogging, a reader finally asks the right question :-)
I do wonder: Do you have more credibility (than the average consumer who stutters) because you have a PhD in theoretical physics and high IQ, despite your lack of background on formal SLP coursework and training. With a Science PhD: you understand the research methodology process and are able to ask good questions on stuttering research?

The short is: Yes and no! The long is as follows

1) The truthfulness of a statement depends on the strength of the supporting and opposing arguments, and not on the proposer of an argument. So, if Einstein gives an argument to support the statement that 1+1=3, he is wrong, even if it is Einstein, and if Adolf Hitler, a little child or myself say that 1+1=2, then we are right. Science has, well let's say should have, an in-built disrespect for any authority, and 100% respect for reality in form of scientific experiments and logical/mathematical reasoning. So it does not matter who gives the argument, whether they are trained practitioners or work as researchers in stuttering, have a PhD in science, or have no education whatsoever. This includes serial killers.

2) Of course, experts in a field have a much higher probability of making correct statements or of giving correct supporting or opposing arguments than non-experts. However, you cannot argue that an argument is correct because X or Y has made it. Many are confused, because they think "X is true because Prof Y has said so", when in fact they really mean "X has a high probability of being true, because Prof Y is an expert in the field". And many more are just blinded by authority or experts.

3) Have you ever asked yourself: Who determines who an expert is? In my experience, three modes are possible. First, a non-expert realises that you have more expertise than herself, and calls you an expert. For example, a journalist that had half a day to dive into a subject. This myth is then propagated and the person labeled expert obviously is not protesting. Second, experts are self-declared. You just need one self-declared expert, who then nominates others as experts, and so on. Third, an institution is self-declared, and by its authority confers expertise to people and other institutions! You see that the process is rather fluid.

4) Are you an expert in stuttering by being qualified to practise as a speech and language therapist? No. In my experience, 99% of those just out of training have no clue about stuttering, and 95% of those with long-term experience had relatively little exposure to stuttering and hold naive or old-fashioned views. Moreover, having a degree does not necessarily make you a good therapist at all! The same is true for a medical doctor. Some of the best I have seen are people who stutter that managed to control their stuttering. I would only call those experts who specialise in stuttering, e.g. for children or intensive speech therapy. But even for those experts, you can ask the question: "So if you are an expert, how come my child is still stuttering or Tom is still stuttering despite many therapies?" The fact is and many therapists would agree that they the experts don't know who is more likely to recover or which therapy is most effective. So the gap between a non-expert and an expert on therapy is really fuzzy, much more than between you and a math professor. And, of course, they can never really understand what it is like to stutter. It is a bit like the pope talking about sex; how can he talk about it when he never (probably) had sex? :-)

5) Lets look at the researchers. If you do research in stuttering, are you an expert in stuttering? Many are experts in stuttering first, and then conduct research. Maybe I am a bit biased here, but they often lack a thorough research training. You need to go through the PhD experience of focusing on a subject in detail for three years, and you need to have been exposed to constant reality checks and peer reviews. Rarely do practitioners have such expertise nor harsh reality checks, and when they conduct research it is often not very good, especially in statistics and methodology. There are exceptions. On the other hand, you have the hard-core scientists like geneticists or neuroscientists who research stuttering, but sometimes have glaring gaps in their overall understanding of the disorder. Some even prefer it this way, they work on the basis: Give me a disorder and I scan it or look at the genes. They do not want to be biased by expertise. That's fine. Some try to do it all, which is great. But no-one is an expert in all research fields. Many are expert in one field and semi-experts in the others. And I feel that I am a semi-expert in all fields.

6) Regarding myself. I stutter so I know what it feels like. I have talked to many others so I understand the variety, though I understand that I am not a good listener! :-) Then, I have been at many different therapies (probably more that therapists who work for one school) with many different therapists. A few therapists even suggested that I would be a good therapist, but I have doubt because I still stutter. How credible is it if I say "I ccccann reddduce youuur stttutering?" Regarding research, I am a trained scientist with PhD experience in an intellectually hard discipline. I feel like all the scientists in stuttering research who study the other fields where they are not experts.

To summarise, everyone can discuss research and treatment, and focus should be on their arguments and not on who they are! Given my science background, I am as able as the researchers in stuttering to discuss research at the same levels as they for fields where they are not working in. This means that I have a higher chance to get it right than the non-scientists, a lower chance than the expert in the field, and an equal chance as the experts in fields where they are not an expert.

And if you don't find me credible, STOP READING MY BLOG! :-)


Randzig said...

Not sure if this has ever been brought up here before...but have you read Emotional Intelligence? The subject is mostly about the brain(anatomy, physiology, emotions...) I'm listening to the audio book and it seems like something in there relates to stuttering and the various traits of a person who stutters.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: Have you ever asked yourself: Who determines who an expert is?

Interesting to note that in recent years this has been a significant issue for the US court system. Many court cases depend on testimony and opinions from "expert witnesses" - but who decides who is an expert witness and who is a crackpot? And what are the appropriate criteria for addressing and resolving this question? When there are millions and even billions of dollars at stake, this issue is of great consequence.

The US courts have had some legal and procedural improvements in recent years to improve this, but it's still a problematic issue.

Anonymous said...

P.S. From Wikipedia: The use of expert witnesses is sometimes criticized in the United States because in civil trials, they are often used by both sides to advocate differing positions, and it is left up to a jury of laymen to decide which expert witness to believe. Sometimes one side has utilized an expert witness to provide fraudulent or junk science testimony in order to convince a jury. (

Anonymous said...

You said: "The fact is and many therapists would agree that they the experts don't know who is more likely to recover or which therapy is most effective."

But some do try to predict what type of kids (based on the type of stuttering behavior) will stop stuttering=recover. Anne Smith at Purdue is trying to do research on predictions: what kinds of children will continue to stutter.

My feeling is that you can't predict it, and if you can predict it...never 80-90% accuracy. Agree or disagree?

Anonymous said...

Anne Smith at Purdue...Can You say "Crackpot Award"?

Tom Weidig said...

Yes, research is under way, and gender and genetic disposition might be factors.

I agree prediction will probably never be 80-90% accurate.

My point was just that how can you be an expert on something that is too fuzzy to predict well? Where is the expertise?

ac said...

I don't find you particularly credible, but I like hearing about the latest conferences and research results. I'd actually read your blog, as opposed to skimming it, if you did more to communicate the state of stuttering research and less soapboxing. But hey, it's your blog.

Tom Weidig said...

Hi AC,

I agree that I might be soap-boxing a bit too much.

But then again different people like to hear different things.

For example, if I talk more science and technical details, my readership goes down!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

I was going to let this comment drop, a quick laugh. But I do wonder:

Can Clarence (or someone) please explain why Anne Smith deserve the Crackpot Award???

(Others don't really can't blame people for trying to make some money. Some people I find are so confused and truly believe in the bs...)

Freud is dead...but Professor Anne Smith is still alive...

How does she fit the 3 criteria?

Clarence said...
Anne Smith at Purdue...Can You say "Crackpot Award"?

Tom Weidig said...

Well, she doesn't. Anne Smith is a serious and well-respected scientist.