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Dear Dr. Internet
I have a weird rash forming on my neck. It’s red, slightly swollen, and it is hot to touch. Can anyone recommend some ailments or home remedies I could apply to stop the itching?

Questions like this have become all too common in a world where social media is saturated with perhaps a-little-too-much-information. I would be inclined to reply to this question by suggesting a dermatologist or perhaps I would rather slam shut my laptop and pry open a book to help immunise myself from such ignorance. Either way, this is a trend that I believe needs to be addressed.

There is no shortage of news stories depicting seemingly well-intentioned though neglectful parents who refused immunisation, or insisted upon some natural remedy, whose child either fell severely ill or died due to medical neglect. Almost every month a story of this sort finds its way into my inbox. It’s tragic, heartbreaking, and it need not happen.

 This is a real issue that has real consequences and it cannot be simply brushed off as a lifestyle choice – in some cases it is abuse.

The internet is an amazing tool. We live in the age of information and it is glorious. From the comfort of my mediocre office chair I can access a truly staggering amount of content. However, sifting through this content can be hard – even for those of us who actively criticise almost every link that is sent our way. But you needn’t be an expert to cross reference a claim.

As a University student a vast amount of my time is spent bettering my ability to critical think. Though, as many politicians will demonstrate, a university degree is not a prerequisite for this skill.

Critical thought is an ongoing process and requires continual self-reminders to make sure it is used correctly. There is an excellent reason why becoming a doctor, or an expert in any field, takes a vast amount of time. It’s really quite simple and I can demonstrate it with a thought experiment of sorts:

Let us imagine, I’m seated at a large desk, and I’m greeted with an equally large coffee mug – with enough caffeine to get Woodstock on its feet. Just off to my right, stacked almost 100 feet high, is every known article, journal, and book written on the human anatomy. As I sit there, trembling from the caffeine, I’m almost overwhelmed by the geological proportion of literature in-front of me – but that’s okay, it’s a thought experiment and I’m sure I’ll get through it. Now, in this imaginary experiment I read really fast – 5000 words a minute, fast. I finish the pile in a mere two hours. I’ve done it. I’ve managed to read every single journal, article, and book regarding the human anatomy. Surely I’d be expert on the human anatomy by now, right?

Not quite.

Reading is but the very first step of education. After my experiment I could possibly explain the energy system used in cells, I may be able to describe the digestive tract and perhaps name a few proteins involved – I could list endless facts about the human body. However, you would be quick to notice that I actually had very little knowledge that could be applied in treatment of illness.

There’s a very simple explanation for this and it involves comprehension. You would remember that during my experiment I took no notes, I wrote no summaries, and I was never once asked to write a 3000 word essay on cellular respiration. So despite the impressive list of medical books and journals to my name, I would still be as far from a doctor as I am right now. Without allocating time to reflect and apply the knowledge I’ve learned, I will never truly understand how to apply that knowledge practically – I have not critically thought about the subject. And more importantly, I was not mentored along the way. I simply read alone.

Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like someone on your social media accounts? They’ve read one or two dubious articles about THC curing cancer and have now dubbed themselves as a fully-fledged google certified oncologist.

Famously, Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist (Feynman would hate that title), discussed this very notion in his 1981 interview with the BBC. Feynman, arguably one of the most enlightened and thoughtful minds of the 20th century, discusses the idea of knowing something:

“The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.” (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)”

My thought experiment did exactly that – I had learned the names of the birds without actually ever knowing anything deep or meaningful about the birds themselves. This is analogous to way the internet is commonly used. Unless an individual is pushed to describe something in their own words and pushed to demonstrate a comprehension of a subject that goes beyond mere imitation, than they are bound to simply only know the name of a thing. And as Feynman mentioned, this only provides insight in to us humans – not the thing that is being named.

So next time someone tries to describe something to you, and all you’re really given is the name of something, you can think back to the inherit genius of Feynman to notice that they have inadvertently told you more about human nature than they have about the nature of the thing they are attempting to describe.

This does not mean that individuals should be barred from a conversation simply due to their ignorance – no. But it does inhibit an individual from taking any sort of authoritative stance on a topic. THC does not cure cancer simply because a meme or Dave from the local organic grocery store said so.

We’ve heard it time and time again – we have more information available to us than ever before. So it would make sense that now, more than ever, we should try and notice the difference between knowing something and simply knowing the name of something. This is why I urge friends to stop soliciting Facebook for medical advice; the only people you should be bothering are those with the correct certificates and doctorates hanging from there office walls. This is proof of their understanding and comprehension. Got a skin problem and feel it is urgent? Contact a dermatologist. I cannot be positive, as one must avoid certainties, but I’m fairly sure that Dave from the organic grocer’s expertise on cancer begins and ends with the spelling of the word ‘cancer’ itself. I know Dave might work at the local health and wellness store, but this tells us exactly nothing about Dave’s knowledge on health and wellness.

We cannot protect ourselves from pseudoscientific nonsense and other farfetched ideas easily; the freedom to speak one’s mind also comes with the sometimes irritating right of having to listen too. But we should all take a little responsibility over our own ability to process the words we see and hear. And if you simply do not have the time nor the patience, that’s fine too. Not everyone wants or needs to obtain these skills. However, knowing the name of a hammer-drill does not bring me any closer to building a house – I simply must trust carpenters and their expertise – no one ever profusely perspired to learn that principle.

Bryce W. Harper

Image credit: JFCherry / flickr

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Bryce Harper

Journalism, Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Technology.

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