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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

When experts don't know the answer how does an authority respond?

An expert is sitting at a table explaining with authority

“Why don’t nutrition experts ever agree?” “Why do nutrition experts keep changing their minds?”

Do you hear those complaints? I do.

I can understand the frustration. It can appear experts don’t agree and keep changing their minds.

Why is that? It is because…

Knowledge is ever-evolving, we don’t know everything, and never will.

In fact, the more we learn the more we realize we still don’t know.

When an “expert” claims to know all there is to know about a subject, don’t believe them. That is impossible.

Scientific knowledge is ever-evolving. Each piece of knowledge uncovers new questions to answer.

Just because much is still unknown shouldn’t stop us from communicating what we DO know along with explaining what is yet to be learned.

Authorities communicate what is known and unknown in understandable ways.

In a recent post, the distinction between an expert and an authority pointed out that while an expert is knowledgeable about a subject, an authority communicates that knowledge so that audiences can understand and apply it.

An expert is obligated by their Code of Ethics to communicate the most up-to-date knowledge within their area of expertise. When they do so in ways their audiences can fully understand, they are speaking with authority.

When experts realize that what was thought to be true about a subject is in fact partially or fully erroneous, it is imperative they communicate the newfound knowledge clearly and without bias. An example of this is how we view the causes of obesity. This is only one of numerous examples in the field of nutrition.

Additionally, experts in any given field, including nutrition, can have differing viewpoints on how to interpret what is known about a subject. For example, there continues to be disagreement about the benefits and potential drawbacks of following high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets.

The better we can explain the scientific process of discovery, the better we will communicate why experts can disagree and why we appear to change our minds.

The public needs to understand that research studies are limited in how results can be applied in a broader context. When one study contradicts the findings of another it doesn’t necessarily mean one is true and one is false. Each one provides a piece of the puzzle and contributes to the body of evidence.

Over time, the research process reveals answers as it creates new questions. The truth is not so much that we have changed our minds as we have expanded our knowledge.

Recognizing what is still unknown is one hallmark of an expert with authority.

How can we communicate what we don’t know with authority?

Communicating knowledge with authority acknowledges what is known and what questions are yet unanswered. For example, well-written journal articles provide background about the topic, discuss the current study design and findings, and describe further research that is needed.

  1. Understand the nature of research

  2. Interpret research accurately

  3. Create context

  4. Beware of bias

  5. Communicate findings clearly

Experts with authority have also mastered the skill of answering questions, including difficult questions.

To answer questions in which experts do not have an answer, say so. Here’s a possible approach… “Research is looking for answers to that question. What we do know indicates… What we still do not understand is… With further research, we hope to have more effective methods to prevent, treat…”

Provide insight into how research builds knowledge over time and how each study expands the depth and breadth of understanding. Rather than say we don’t know, you can honestly say we are learning.

“There’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know. The only shame is pretending you know all the answers.” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

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