The Illusion of Knowledge

Have you ever met someone, perhaps in the grocery store, and realized their face is familiar but you can’t place how you know them? For most people, that’s a mental puzzle that begs to be solved. This person seems to know you, but how? Seeing familiar people (your kid’s teacher, your dentist, your usual bus driver) out of context can be mildly disturbing to most people. Do you politely admit to this person you have no clue who they are or do you fumble along hoping they offer clues to their identity?

If a familiar face out of context confronts us with the unknown, you can begin to appreciate how frightening it is for parents to witness their child lagging behind in developmental skills and not know why. When I brought my young son to our family physician and to a pediatrician to figure out what could be done to help him overcome his fear of new food, I was told by both of these medical professionals that he would get hungry eventually. It wasn’t at all helpful and only fueled my own fears for my son’s health and future well-being.

Desperate for answers, I turned to the Internet. I was not comfortable with the unknown and eager for answers. I needed to understand what had caused my son’s selective eating so I could figure out what to do about it.

This need to understand the cause is especially relevant to mothers, and magnified when we perceive something that poses a potential threat to our children. We are biologically driven to protect our young, something we are woefully ill equipped to do against something we don’t understand. The Internet is an excellent place to see this mechanism at work, where it thrives behind the belief that vaccines cause autismsugar causes cancer, or that nutrition can cure almost anything.

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Dogma is pervasive in all walks of life, but especially among fields of nutrition and its impact on health, so much so, that commonly held beliefs and practices are fiercely defended, despite sufficient evidence-based science to the contrary.

When Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll, both pediatricians at Indiana University, discredited the research behind the well-publicized advice to drink eight glasses of water a day, their office was besieged with e-mails and media requests. One caller was so persistent and abusive, staff had to file for a restraining order. Their book, “Don’t Swallow Your Gum!” is a collection of 66 medical myths and half-truths, that despite sufficient science to the contrary, many continue to accept these myths as absolute fact. Why? According to Dr. Carroll, “People want to understand the world so they latch onto a reason.”

Once we believe something, whether it’s truth or myth, we begin to see confirmation in the world around us. We can become attached to beliefs that seem to serve a function for us and we don’t like to give them up even if they’re false because they seem too true to be false. This is especially true when we get information from a trusted source.” ~James Alcock, Psychologist, York University

As the parent of a food phobic child, my concerns were dismissed by medical and feeding professionals alike, under the assumption that my son was simply a picky eater. True, it’s not uncommon for the average 2-6 year old to be cautious about food, however, it is far too common for a mother, concerned about her child’s mealtime behaviour and lack of dietary variety to be told, “he’ll grow out of it.”

Not all children do, and there is no evidence to conclude that all children will. At that time, it would have been more helpful to say something doctor-ish, like “hmm”, or “uh huh”, or even better, “I don’t know, but if you’re worried about eating skills or nutrition, you should talk to a (insert relevant feeding / dietary specialist).”

“I don’t know” would be far more valuable and reassuring to a parent worried about her child’s eating than dismissive words from a trusted source offering false hope.

The ‘illusion of knowledge‘ is the tendency to think we have a better understanding of something than we actually do. Admitting to not knowing is a very uncomfortable feeling – think about the street magician who tricks the crowd with a clever illusion. It’s entertainment because we have just witnessed something we can’t explain and don’t understand. The Internet provides access to unlimited perspectives on a multitude of topics, and a well written presentation is often all we need to be convinced.

“It’s interesting looking at the difference of the definition between illusions in magic and illusions in science. When science looks at an illusion, they’re looking at it almost as a short circuit in the brain, a place where the brain skips a step, and it highlights something that tells us a lot more about the brain. In magic, we look at it as a way to exploit either a false assumption or someway that the perception is making you have false information.” – Apollo Robbins, Illusionist, Brain Games

Currently popular are claims that we should eat ‘real’ food and avoid chemical additives. I’m all for eating real food – the plastic playschool stuff wasn’t made with digestion in mind. As for chemical additives, well… that’s just unrealistic. Oxygen is a chemical, an element to be precise. Good luck avoiding that one. Hydrogen is also an element, and a fairly unstable one at that. It’s the stuff that most people associate with mushroom clouds and Hiroshima – undeniably a very dangerous chemical. If you take two parts hydrogen and mix it with one part oxygen, you’ll create an industrial solvent, the key component to acid rain, an additive to junk food that is fatal if inhaled. See what I did there? But wait… I also have the answer! Just buy my book and the expensive herbal supplements backed by customer testimony.  Does any of this sound familiar? Fear is a powerful marketing tool.


That was an easy one. We all know inhaling water is called drowning. The trouble is the popularity of beliefs that play on what we don’t know. What do we really know about the alleged benefits of eliminating macronutrients and entire food groups – not to avoid potentially life-threatening allergens, but to improve behaviour, to ‘cure’ developmental delay, to heal our ‘broken’ children. Every year we are advised to eat more of a newly discovered (and often previously unheard of) “superfood” to protect us from our fears. Yet we never question how this protective effect is an absolute known when the origins and nature of the (disease, delay, behaviour) are not?

“Food and health scares have never been more rampant, and so are the fears. People who believe sugars, fats, refined white ingredients, processed foods, meat products or chemicals in their food are bad actually think they get sick when they eat them. Sadly, the belief behind forbidden foods is so strong that when they eat something they believe bad or wrong to eat, they have extreme symptoms, including headaches, chest pain, nausea, rashes and weakness.

We are not what we eat, we are what we believe.” ~Sandy Szwarc, Junkfood Science: Should We Care What Works and What Doesn’t? 

When I first turned to the Internet for answers, there wasn’t a lot of easy-to-find information on Selective Eating Disorder, which in hindsight, is probably a good thing. Rummaging through the sparse number of studies that research children’s food preferences, selective eating behaviour, and contributing genetic factors requires an education all its own. Evaluating the results requires a good eye for a well conceptualized study with enough participation to achieve unbiased results. Such studies tend to conclude with more questions than the study originally sought to answer. I learned that good science isn’t really as much about finding answers as it is discovering as much as possible about the unknown.

“The problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is the Illusion of Knowledge that comes with an overabundance of unstructured information. It fosters the public manifestation of unfounded beliefs, stalls scientific arguments, and hinders progress.” ~Backreaction: Illusion of Knowledge

The Internet is the perfect medium to exploit false assumptions based on fear and guilt, all of which promise better health, better behaviour, and ultimately, a better quality of life. Where science doesn’t have the answers, there seems to be a plethora of websites stating the solution is a simple home remedy, a detoxification diet, a promise of a cure, all backed by cleverly worded pseudoscience. When we are faced with a situation we do not understand and cannot control, false hope disguised as an answer is easy to sell.

No motivation is more dedicated than that of a mother protecting the life of her child. A mother concerned for her child’s health and future who cannot find the answers and support she needs is a very desperate human being. The prevalence of pseudoscience that feeds our belief in what we think we know only fuels mistrust in genuine evidence based science. It is nothing more than an opportunistic predator, and the desperate parent is easy prey.

The most elementary and valuable statement in science is “I don’t know.” The science behind the impact of nutrition on our health (as it applies to the general population) is not conclusive, otherwise the Dietary Guidelines for Americans would be published once and forever instead of updated every five years. Believing in what someone else thinks they know about nutrition, especially with intent to treat and cure should always be viewed with great caution and skepticism. There is a great deal that science still does not understand and every answer discovered comes with more questions to explore. The only absolute and undeniable truth in nutritional science is that nobody has all the answers.

Further Reading:

Backreaction: Fact or Fiction
Down Wit Dat: Balls
National Geographic: One Thing We Know About Autism
Quackwatch: Questionable Organizations
Reaching For The Sky: The Illusion of Knowledge
Respectful Insolence: Influenza Still Kills


2 responses to “The Illusion of Knowledge

  1. Thank you for writing this post. It’s wonderful. The fear and guilt many moms feel is too much. Just too much. I’m one of them. Your blog and Facebook page are a huge support. Again, I thank you.

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