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Beware The So-called Experts

February 12, 2003

Beware The So-called Experts

There’s never a dull day here in Parliament. Certainly, you learn something new every day. Have you ever heard of kava kava? I must admit my first notion was that it was the name of some Indonesian island or perhaps a new dance craze of which I had yet to become aware. So when I was asked to serve o…

Beware The So-called Experts

There’s never a dull day here in Parliament. Certainly, you learn something new every day. Have you ever heard of kava kava? I must admit my first notion was that it was the name of some Indonesian island or perhaps a new dance craze of which I had yet to become aware. So when I was asked to serve on the Committee scrutinising the Government’s decision to outlaw kava kava I thought I had better brush up my knowledge pretty quickly.

It emerged that kava kava is in fact a naturally occurring substance which is often added as a supplement to medicines or food, and which had been subject to adverse publicity last year about its safety. Accordingly the Department of Health had decided to ban its use and the role of this Committee was to rubber-stamp that decision. I have become aware that vitamins and other supplements have become ever more popular – indeed my wife, Michele, despairs of the cabinets full of tablets that we have in our bathroom -ranging from anti-oxidants to cod liver oil and glucosamine sulphate, which I take in order to keep my joints in good shape (even at 38 they say you can’t be too young for this!).

It was evident from the Committee’s deliberations that someone had panicked to outlaw the substance following the death from liver failure of one 84 year old kava kava user. It was not clear whether kava kava had really been to blame and indeed the very strict regulatory regime in the United States had recently given this supplement the all clear. Other MPs on the Committee were pretty curious about the decision to deprive British people of the choice to use this supplement. I was reminded of the fact that saccharine, the sugar substitute, had been banned for over two years in the mid-1970s in the United States on the basis of medical experiments which results in rats contracting cancer after three bags of sugar substitute had been put into the equivalent of a single cup of tea.

Life seems to be so complicated these days that in my view there is rather too much reliance upon expert opinion. I have always had a healthy scepticism for the settled opinion of "experts". I am reminded of the wise words of Lord Salisbury who said that "no lesson seems to be more deeply inculcated by the experience of life than that you should never trust experts". As it happened, on the very day we were deciding whether the medical expert opinion on kava kava should hold sway, news came through of the quashing of Sally Clark’s murder conviction. You may recall that she was the hapless lady who spent almost three years in prison after the cot death of her two babies. Although she and her husband Stephen, who admirably stood by her during this appalling time, vehemently denied killing their babies, there was apparently "irrefutable medical evidence" from one expert to prove the opposite.

Mr. & Mrs. Clark are both solicitors, with the specialist education, legal training and financial resources to stand up, eventually anyway, to the power of expertise, whether medical or judicial. The great majority of people in this country do not enjoy such advantages, and so find themselves at the mercy of the opinion of a single expert. In making our stand for consumer choice, our Committee was making a small but important stand against the cult of the opinionated expert which, at its most disastrous, can ruin lives.