The Wisdom of Collaborating with Adversaries

Night Stroll“Let’s just agree to disagree” is an expression of utter nonsense, says Professor David Allison in an introduction to the concept of adversarial collaboration. Of course, he is describing this in the context of scientific controversies. And in obesity and nutrition research, it’s quite easy to construct a list of subjects on which the disagreements are quite strong. But rather than agreeing to disagree, we might do better to tap into the wisdom of collaborating with adversaries.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics and behavioral science, has hopes that part of his scientific legacy will be the practice of adversarial collaboration. The whole idea is not to agree to disagree. Instead, the aim is to do the work of mutually designing experimental research that will resolve conflicting theories about important subjects. The mutual agreement on experimental design must come from collaboration between two people who hold sharply differing views about what the correct answer will be.

Kahneman first practiced this concept through collaborative research with his wife, Anne Treisman.

The Example of Trans Fats

The American Society of Nutrition and the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently organized an outstanding overview of adversarial collaboration. Allison offered an engaging historical perspective. He pointed to research on trans fatty acids as a key example for the value of this approach.

“Years ago many people, including me, were not convinced that the evidence showed trans fatty acids were worse than saturated fatty acids. Other people were. Interestingly it was the food industry that sat down with Joseph Judd [at USDA] and asked, ‘What would it take to really do this study right? What would be the right experimental trial to test whether trans fatty acids are worse than saturated fatty acids.’”

The result was a carefully controlled crossover study that proved to be a landmark for determining that trans fats are clearly harmful for heart health. And the food industry funded it. It sparked a process that led to removing trans fats from our food supply.

Evidence to Resolve Persistent Disputes

So the wisdom of collaborating with adversaries flows from something Kahneman calls the “15 IQ point benefit.” When definitive research provides evidence to resolve persistent disputes, everyone gets smarter. The knowledge base grows and we can move on to discuss more interesting controversies.

Click here to listen to the fascinating overview from ASN and UAB (access is free with registration). To read more about adversarial collaboration, click here, here, and here.

Night Stroll, Conté crayon on paper by Georges Seurat

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December 11, 2022

2 Responses to “The Wisdom of Collaborating with Adversaries”

  1. December 11, 2022 at 2:41 pm, Joe Gitchell said:

    Ted – this is really cool and hopefully such efforts will grow to become more common.

    In that vein, are you familiar with this program based out of UPenn? And if Prof Allison isn’t, he might be interested in it, too.


    • December 12, 2022 at 4:29 am, Ted said:

      Yes indeed. Cory Clark, who directs that project, was a primary presenter in the overview UAB and ASN sponsored.