How does the layman decide between expert- and pseudo-expert views?
Posted on May 7th, 2013

Chandre dharma-wardana

The ordinary man has often been misled by genuine experts as well as pseudo-experts, fear-mongering individuals and false prophet. Experts can be used by powerful people (governments. corporations, lobby groups) to disseminate their version of “the truth”. Also, conspiracy theories can be psychologically more appealing than the bare truth. Getting at the whole truth is very hard, and is the endevour of all research.

So the question “what should the layman do” (raised by Janaka) is very important and has to be answered carefully and in some detail.

When a problem has to be solved, and a social judgment has to be made there are two steps: (i) first of all about the facts (that is, decide what IS, what IS NOT). Then there is a decision to be made about (ii) what OUGHT to be done.

The first one, i..e., about facts can be settled by the scientific method if it is allowed to work without interference. The WHO-sponsored study of CKDU, in spite of its several short-comings, is the right way to go in getting at the facts.  The second, i.e., the OUGHT part cannot be done by scientists alone. Here we need a JURY of ordinary informed citizens who will decide what ought to be done.

As some one who has been studying the published data about kidney disease in the dry zone from a distance (so not directly involved in any of the protagonists or antigonists in the country), I think that the WHO study, and all the other reliable studies taken within the known error bars of the experiments rule out Arsenic, Cd, Pb, and such metal toxins,  toxic algae, or contaminated food as the primary cause of the disease. The human body is 95% water. if the toxins are not in the water table in any significant amounts, it is not contaminated water that is causing it. I have out lined my view of the cause of CKDU in my 12th Sept. 2012 Daily News article.

However, once the finger is pointed at some accused, and once the public takes that accusation as part of its urban wisdom, it is hard to correct that impression. People are ready to believe, with good reason, that excessive use of fertilizers and insecticides takes place and create environmental damage. So they are ready to jump to conclusions in every case even when the facts are pointing in other directions.
Looking at fertilizers and insecticides as the cause was/is a good hypothesis. It has become increasingly untenable.

It is a bit like the belief entrenched in the public mind that cell-phone radiation causes cancer and that people who hold cell phones near the head contract brain tumors. We have had  lots of cell phones for about 10 years in the world now, and there have been an estimated 6 billion used during this period. yet, NOT A SINGLE confirmed case of cancer due to cell phones has been rigorously established. If even one had been established, the US lawyers would have a bonanza with class-action cases against cell-phone companies. So, since we have have 6 billion cell-phone usages for 10 years without  a single proven cancer case, we can conclude that the probability is less than 1 part in 6 billion that someone will get cancer from cell phones in the next ten years. Furthermore, Einstein proved in 1905, long before cell phones came into being, that such radiation cannot have an effect because energy comes in quanta.
Quite counter- intuitively, the power does not depend on the intensity of the rays, but the shortness of the waves, and that is Einstein’s law about the photo-electric effect.
AND YET, in spite of all the facts, the majority of the  public falsely believes that cell phones are dangerous, but ignore far bigger dangers everyday in their environment.
I have listed these cancer sources in within the context of my compilation of Sri Lankan plants and medicinal herbs listed in

As for understanding fertilizers and insecticides, the best solution is for people to try doing some home gardening (and this is very feasible in a climate like Lanka), leave aside the more demanding balcony gardening as done by Japanese urbanites who have no garden space to speak of. Then they can do their own `organic gardening’. They will also learn at first hand how hard it is to protect their tomatoes, peas, and spinach, Okra ( Bandakka) etc., from snails, nematodes, flies, viruses and so on. Then people begin to `kill the bus’  using insecticides etc., and then we need to teach them that these bugs are also needed in the food chain, but at a controlled level. So even those who are not farmers need to know some thing about it and have first-hand knowledge.

Actual farmers need to be taught how to correctly use fertilizers and insecticides. Just calling for a ban on fertilizers and insecticides is like saying `lets get rid of the motor  car and  electrical house-wiring etc  full of bad radiation’.

The growth of huge urban populations who have no experience in agriculture or biology (or chemistry, or physics, or electricity and magenitsm) and who live in technological societies   has also produced urban myths based on unrealistic expectations fed on incorrect incomplete data (i.e., partial truths).

How can we correct this? Perhaps two steps are needed. (1)  every one should have some hands-on experience in living like a simple agricultural peasant for one year. (2) every one should be given a basic knowledge of science, technology and mathematics/statistics, just as they need  skills in language and literature to communicate.

Unfortunately, `common-sense’ is the most uncommon commodity in the modern world, even among experts.



5 Responses to “How does the layman decide between expert- and pseudo-expert views?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Chandre dharma-wardana is a patriot who has BEST interests of SL at heart.

    So we should listen to him.

    “WHO study, and all the other reliable studies taken within the known error bars of the experiments rule out Arsenic, Cd, Pb, and such metal toxins, toxic algae, or contaminated food as the primary cause of the disease.”

    BUT this is WRONG. There are MANY STUDIES that LINK it to Arsenic, Cd, Pb, and such metal toxins. Someone wrote an article recently on it WITH NUMBERS.

    1 INDEPENDENT LAB tests in Malaysia has PROVEN some agro chemicals have Arsenic, Cd, Pb, and such metal toxins

    2 We ALL know Arsenic, Cd, Pb, and such metal toxins are bad for health, particularly for the kidneys

    3 Lack of water intake MAKES IT WORSE

    4 Govt. BANNED Arsenic, Cd, Pb, and such metal toxins agrochemicals LONG TIME AGO after studies revealed they are bad.

    5 Even if Arsenic, Cd, Pb, and such metal toxins are NOT the root cause of the disease, WHY add these TOXINS to our soil and water?

    6 I take WHO report with caution. WHO is a UN BODY like UNHRC. I don’t trust UNHRC report at all. I don’t trust UNSG’s report either.

  2. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    question arises who decides who is an expert and who is a pseudo-expert. in this corrupt world driven by money, filthy politics and propaganda it’s would be difficult task for anyone to come to a conclusion of what is truth and what is untruth. people like to hear what they want to hear, partially through conditioning. their thinking is molded by various inputs, in this present communication age, media.
    heladeepa was labeled ‘the granary of the east’ as we were the leading exporter of cash crops, especially during the great parakum era. did we have artificial fertilizers or insecticides then? the rivers were clean, the tanks were clean and we had plenty of good food to go around. science and stupidity probably go together????

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    We agree that mostly NATURAL methods be found to deal with crops & household pests, and also use of organic fertilizers. For instance, we found that using ordinary boric acid powder mixed with flour and a bit of sugar with water to bind the mix, was a fast and safe way to get rid of cockroaches in the house. The cockies would eat the tiny rolls of bait and perish after some time. Boric acid is a safe compound for people. However, the tiny rolls of boric acid must be kept where children and pets cannot reach them.

    I imagine that crop pests are far more difficult to deal with in a NATURAL manner. Crop rotation or growing certain herbs among vegetables may help. Sprinkling soap water and wood ash may help. There is a whole lot of information on the subject on the internet.

    As for the presence of heavy metal in the Mahaweli waters, here (reprinted in this website yet again) is an article from the internet :

    Environ Geochem Health. 2011 Oct;33(5):439-53. doi: 10.1007/s10653-010-9344-4. Epub 2010 Oct 28.
    Pollution of River Mahaweli and farmlands under irrigation by cadmium from agricultural inputs leading to a chronic renal failure epidemic among farmers in NCP, Sri Lanka.
    Bandara JM, Wijewardena HV, Bandara YM, Jayasooriya RG, Rajapaksha H.
    Department of Agricultural Biology, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. [email protected]
    Chronic renal failure (CRF) associated with elevated dietary cadmium (Cd) among farming communities in the irrigated agricultural area under the River Mahaweli diversion scheme has reached a significantly higher level of 9,000 patients. Cadmium, derived from contaminated phosphate fertilizer, in irrigation water finds its way into reservoirs, and finally to food, causing chronic renal failure among consumers. Water samples of River Mahaweli and its tributaries in the upper catchment were analyzed to assess the total cadmium contamination of river water and the possible source of cadmium. Except a single tributary (Ulapane Stream, 3.9 μg Cd/l), all other tested tributaries carried more than 5 μg Cd/l, the maximum concentration level accepted to be safe in drinking water. Seven medium-sized streams carrying surface runoff from tea estates had 5.1-10 μg Cd/l. Twenty larger tributaries (Oya), where the catchment is under vegetable and home garden cultivation, carried 10.1-15 μg Cd/l. Nine other major tributaries had extremely high levels of Cd, reaching 20 μg Cd/l. Using geographic information system (GIS), the area in the catchment of each tributary was studied. The specific cropping system in each watershed was determined. The total cadmium loading from each crop area was estimated using the rates and types of phosphate fertilizer used by the respective farmers and the amount of cadmium contained in each type of fertilizer used. Eppawala rock phosphate (ERP), which is mostly used in tea estates, caused least pollution. The amount of cadmium in tributaries had a significant positive correlation with the cadmium loading of the cropping system. Dimbula Tea Estate Stream had the lowest Cd loading (495.9 g/ha/year), compared with vegetable-growing areas in Uma Oya catchment with 50,852.5 g Cd/ha/year. Kendall’s τ rank correlation value of total Cd loading from the catchment by phosphate fertilizer used in all crops in the catchment to the Cd content in the tributaries was +0.48. This indicated a major contribution by the cropping system in the upper catchment area of River Mahaweli to the eventual Cd pollution of river water. Low soil pH (4.5-5.2), higher organic matter content (2-3%), and 18-20 cmol/kg cation exchange capacity (CEC) in upcountry soil have a cumulative effect in the easy release of Cd from soil with the heavy surface runoff in the upcountry wet zone. In view of the existing water conveyance system from upcountry to reservoirs in North Central Province (NCP) through diversion of River Mahaweli, in addition to their own nonpoint pollution by triple superphosphate fertilizer (TSP), this demands a change in overall upper catchment management to minimize Cd pollution through agriculture inputs to prevent CRF due to elevated dietary cadmium among NCP farmers”.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Editor: please remove the tag [email protected] ….. thank you.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Re CKD : Drinking lots of clean water on a daily basis will surely help CKD patients as well as others living in the dry zones areas.
    The Reverse Osmosis (RO) method of water filtration to remove impurities in polluted water such as heavy metals etc., can be used in households as well as for entire cities. The RO method can also de-salinate sea or brackish water to make it drinkable.

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