This cult of professionalism corrupts everything

<preform>Say you want to cut A&amp;E waiting times, and A&E managers will find a way to fiddle the figures</preform>
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The Independent Online

The only hate mail I received was prompted by the weight-loss experience I shared with the world. The Carr Diet is completely described by five words - apples, exercise, vegetables, no alcohol. It infuriated nutritionists, I don't know why. It was described as "ridiculous" and "ignorant". This was despite the fact that the diet had been effective enough to lose me a stone a month for three months.

The only hate mail I received was prompted by the weight-loss experience I shared with the world. The Carr Diet is completely described by five words - apples, exercise, vegetables, no alcohol. It infuriated nutritionists, I don't know why. It was described as "ridiculous" and "ignorant". This was despite the fact that the diet had been effective enough to lose me a stone a month for three months.

But then why wouldn't it? There's no mystery about weight loss. Never mind glycaemic indices or polyunsaturated theory. If you need 2,500 calories a day, you'll struggle to keep your weight up if you're taking in 1,000 calories a day. But there's something about weight-loss theory that provokes quite irrational passions. Experts certainly hate diets that can be expressed in five words. After all, they undermine the marketing opportunities. You can't have a five-word book, even a diet book in these degraded times.

But these amateur excursions enrage the professionals for other reasons. Hoi polloi like us aren't allowed to tread on hallowed ground. Ton pollon Robert Atkins was a mere cardiologist, but he dared to have nutritional theories which he put about. His Atkins Diet was described by the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine as a recipe for colon cancer, kidney disease and osteoporosis. Now two university studies say it's the healthiest diet in the world.

They may be right, they may be wrong. Any number of studies, tests, surveys prove them to be both right and wrong. All over the world, foundations and institutes are dedicated to every sort of hypothesis. The lucky ones are endorsed by government, which then turns their beliefs into official advice which is used to nag the nation into conforming to one set of targets over another. These verdicts are fought over as political prizes - which is perhaps what they are. That would explain why they are such an unreliable guide to the way we should live our lives.

Heaven only knows how we still fall for it. Low fat was good, now high fat is good. Carbohydrates were good, now carbohydrates are bad. Experts told us eggs were lethal, now they're essential. Vitamins made you live longer; now they are more dangerous than passive smoking. But passive smoking isn't dangerous at all. Exercise will doubtless turn out to shorten lives in some way; running is already said to weaken the bones. Experts told us everyone would have Aids by now. Experts told us the world's computer system was going to crash at midnight 2000.

Why don't highly educated, well informed people agree on these things? Why don't we know more? Doesn't scientific knowledge exist on a higher plane than say, political assertions?

There are a number of issues here. Politics is everywhere. And whatever politicians touch they debauch. If politicians (and not just the ones you get in politics) are involved in information-gathering, they will corrupt the data. They can't help it. As in Heisenberg's theory, they change the result by conducting the experiment. When they say they want to reduce waiting times in A&E, you'll find A&E managers fiddling the figures one way or another - redefining corridors as wards or trolleys as beds, perhaps not even letting victims into the A&E area until there's room to get them through in the required time. If the data are corrupt, there's no way we can know what the facts are.

Second: Experts, knowing perhaps how little they know, will stick to an orthodoxy if it has once been proven to work. The IMF, for instance, applies astonishing solutions to low-performing economies in the Third World and calmly surveys the wreckage they produce. Reforms that have worked for highly developed western countries with their legal frameworks, property rights and judicial independence don't necessarily translate to some feudal kleptocracy with a judiciary of jungle fighters.

Third: The experts, the professionals, break off into a world of their own with their own language, customs and rewards. Here's a relatively benign example. When I was toiling for a political party trying to introduce a new policy matrix to the world, I decided that the messages should be reduced to a headline, a graphic and 30 words. They were sleek, neat and full of explanatory power, a triumph of desktop publishing. When they were compared with a party worker's terrible old-fashioned cyclostyled production off an Olympia typewriter ... they failed. The amateur version lacked all professional values but had heart; that was the one quality the brilliant professional offerings could never have.

That's the fatal flaw, the lack of heart. Professionalism is the modern cult. It transcends borders and classes. Deracinated, it has the power to impose itself in every way and in every place. It doesn't mean it provides us with the truth.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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