Beware the men (and women) in white coats

There’s something incredibly authoritative about someone wearing a white lab coat. The minute I get into the lab and put mine on I feel powerful, knowledgeable, wise. This attitude changes as I realise I haven’t got a clue what my results actually mean… but for those 10 milliseconds each day I feel like I know things about science.

The problem is that a number of people involved in marketing have also cottoned on to the fact that someone wearing a lab coat and/or glasses looks clever and appears trustworthy. This has lead to a glut of adverts featuring ‘clever-looking’ people in lab coats telling you exactly why their toothpaste, pregnancy test or shampoo is the best. They often use fancy scientific-sounding words (which are sometimes entirely made up) to explain why their product is amazing then seal the deal by flashing you a trustworthy, knowledgeable smile – ‘trust me I look kinda like a doctor’.

A number of cosmetic companies use images scientists in a white coats to sell their products

Beware of these people! Just because they are wearing a lab coat, and usually glasses, doesn’t mean they are scientists or doctors. Even if someone is actually called “Dr”, this still doesn’t guarantee they know what they are talking about. I will (hopefully) be a doctor someday soon. When I finish my PhD I could put on my lab coat, fix you with a serious look, introduce myself as “Dr Walker” and give you a lecture about nutrition, shampoo or teeth; and you’d probably believe me. However, I know nothing about nutrition, shampoo or teeth for that matter and I will undoubtedly be talking absolute rubbish.

These advertisers are exploiting the fact that we are more willing to believe something if it is presented to us by someone who looks authoritative –  in this case, someone wearing a lab coat and/or glasses. Such ‘blind faith’ in authority figures was most famously studied by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961. In his experiment subjects thought they were giving an electric shock to another person in a different room. They had been informed that the person being shocked had a heart condition. Someone in authority would then prompt the subject to administer an electric shock to the other person in increasing doses, often causing them to scream in pain or bang on the wall. Shockingly, many test subjects were willing to administer a potentially lethal dose of electricity as long as they were prompted to do so by the person in authority. Fortunately the test wasn’t real and the person being ‘shocked’ was just an actor, but this experiment showed how people are more likely to go against their own judgement if someone in authority tells them it’s OK.

Obviously I’m not telling you to distrust the authority of your GP or any other medical specialist. These guys have spent many years studying their field and generally know what they’re talking about. I’m referring to the people who crop up on TV self assuredly promoting their own opinions on various controversial subjects, or trying to flog you some skincare products with promises like “it’ll reverse the ageing process due to the addition of polydeageinium*” or some other equally ridiculous statement. For an excellent assessment of the ‘science’ behind cosmetics and why these names they claim to give their creams are often totally bogus, see Ben Goldacre’s website.

A good example of how people’s trust in authority has been misplaced is the PIP breast implant scandal. A French company, Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) was using potentially dangerous non-authorised silicone for breast implants (see here for more detail on this story). This incident may have occurred because people trusted the chain of authority above them: the patient trusted their plastic surgery team, and the plastic surgery teams trusted their supplier (which was not a huge leap of faith since the PIP implants had been given the ‘CE’ mark, meaning they met European quality assurance standards). This incident has led to fears that the low-quality implants may rupture and, in some cases, have caused the patient a lot of pain. This story highlights how mistakes can be made and how blind trust in another persons authority may not always be a sensible choice.

The PIP story also highlights how divisions can appear within the medical community, with different groups claiming different things – some say the danger of rupture from the PIP-supplied implants is higher than that of medical-grade implants, others disagree. This differing of opinion has become a political issue as well as medical one (see here for more detail). Therefore, It’s also worth keeping in mind that opinions can differ even within the scientific community. This difference in opinion is not unusual since experimental findings are rarely black and white. However, understanding comes as more experiments are conducted, meaning that the consensus scientific opinion is often the closest to fact you can get. This means you should also be wary of ‘real doctors’ expressing opinions which are not held by the rest of the scientific/medical community.

Obviously, the PIP story is a rarity, but it does illustrate how sometimes people can blindly follow someone in authority, whether it’s a doctor, manufacturer or even the European Quality Assurance board! If you see someone on TV claiming to be a doctor or specialist in their subject giving their opinion on a matter which concerns you, it should be easy to search online and discover their credentials, and investigate whether what they are saying agrees with scientific opinion as a whole.

So be aware that a white coat and/or the fact that someone is a “doctor” does not automatically mean they know best. Trust me, I’m (almost) a doctor.

* “Polydeageinium” is not a real chemical. No one would ever seriously come up with a name that stupid would they? Would they??? Maybe I should copyright it, just in case…

Post by: Louise Walker

1 thought on “Beware the men (and women) in white coats”

  1. we are more willing to believe something if it is presented to us by someone who looks authoritative. this has been a thing for a long time. but i think we as a society are moving away from that and from the authority standpoint since we can look up any knowledge we have right on our phones.

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