Blog Post 6: Internet Source Reliability

For every reliable Routers source on the internet, there are ten Rainbow Conspiracy Ladies. People who have dial-up, but maybe not a high school degree – people who just plain don’t know what they’re talking about.

What’s nice about Rainbow Conspiracy Lady is that she’s laughable. She’s one clueless woman with a camera, a backyard and a sprinkler who accidentally exposed her ignorance to the world – and we get to sit back and giggle, knowing that only people as hopeless as she is will actually get concerned about ‘whatever’s in our water’.

If you like that sort of thing, also try out the Dihydrogen Monoxide awareness website, which almost looks credible if you squint – again, this site is pretty funny because it’s not actually out to get anyone. It’s kind of Stephen Colbert-styled in its use of verbal irony:
“Unfortunately, some have seen fit to fill many thousands of web pages with purposely slanted propaganda meant more to titillate and sensationalize than to inform. The following “information” about Dihydrogen Monoxide is what you’ll commonly find on the Internet. The Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division does not endorse the use of such scare tactics, particularly when telling people about the invisible killer, Dihydrogen Monoxide.”

Unfortunately for us, not all incorrect information is clueless or meant as a joke. There is a huge profit to be had from misinformation, and there are enough niches in the science world that the average person doesn’t understand that the right person with the right credentials can make a mint off of lying.

The first thing that pops up in google for Andrew Wakefield is "andrew wakefield fraud". Check it out.

Enter Andrew Wakefield, one of the most infamous names in the medical community. Wakefield is a UK doctor – that is, he was a doctor, until very recently – who made a living off of scaring mothers and expecting mothers about infant vaccines. While he got book deal profits and benefited from law suits against hospitals and governments, Great Britain suffered the consequences of families that were wrongly informed and not properly treating their newborns. Wakefield had claimed that the MMR vaccine (among others) could cause autism and other serious health risks in otherwise healthy children. Despite countries all over the world stating that the evidence for this was flawed at best, people love a conspiracy. Wakefield continued claiming that more papers would be published soon with more solid links between the thimerosal in vaccines and autism. The internet was swarmed with misinformation and online communities for expecting moms began supporting each other in talking to their doctors about skipping early-childhood vaccinations that would have saved their children from measles and worse. The above link to the Irish measles epidemic is from 2001, but that doesn’t mean this is old news. There are still plenty of families that plan on having children and not getting them their shots for this exact reason.

And why would Wakefield do this? For the money. Wakefield got over £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. And if you’re hoping that maybe those lawyers were also doctors, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

This year CNN reported on even further evidence disproving the autism/vaccination connection, but sadly the damage has already been done. By definition a conspiracy must be denied by those in charge. The misinformation is still being perpetuated by the under-informed, the wrongly-informed, and the just plain scared. And the worst part is that it’s the newborns that suffer the consequences. I hope Wakefield spent all that money on something really great.

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Blog Post 5: Research Tools

I want to post about WebMD. Because I am obsessed with it.

I’m going to start by telling you what a hypochondriac is, however, because it’s relevant to WebMD and other resources like it. Hypochondriasis is ‘an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness’. Everyone knows somebody that has at least some of these traits – that person that gets a bad cough during flu week and is obsessed with the idea that they might have cholera. Do they have a headache? It must be a migraine. Every time.

Lots of people, even mentally healthy people, can worry too much about their health. It’s pretty natural – we’re worried about what we don’t understand, and the majority of us know very little about how it is we keep waking up in the morning alive. We’re pretty sure it has to do with eating every day, and oxygen, and maybe blood levels, but shows like House MD get us concerned that maybe that leg jiggling that happens in our sleep is actually a clogged artery. That will kill us. To death.

And so, with our natural concerns being amplified by medical shows that are often both scary and completely inaccurate, we head to the internet. Because you don’t need to buy Grey’s Anatomy anymore, or the specialized enormous tomes that focused specifically on small, innocuous symptoms that really mean you have a deathly illness. (And, yes, they do exist.) Now you just need to log on and self-diagnose.

And there is the problem. The ‘Symptom Checker’ on WebMD has been especially panned for oversimplifying issues and leading would-be patients to false conclusions. The Symptom Checker, which I encourage you to try out for yourself, asks for your age, sex, zip code, and email – I assume it only uses the first 2 things for diagnostic purposes – and from there you literally just start clicking on what hurts.

As an example, I entered in that I had nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. Pretty generic. While most of the suggestions are benign (indoor allergens, common cold and hay fever come up first), it also suggests that I might have ‘nasal polyps’ or ‘whooping cough’. Or… West Nile virus. (Maybe I should get to the Health Center.)

And the thing is, all of these are technically possible. What we as a Didn’t-Attend-Med-School community need to keep in mind, however, is that even having a reputable medical textbook isn’t the same as going to a doctor. The internet doesn’t know your medical history – and if it ever asks you for it, please, for the love of all that is good and secure, don’t give it what it wants. Trained doctors will always outrank click-through questionnaires, no matter how good the Flash is, and while resources like WebMD can be invaluable for sudden medical situations or the occasional question, remember that you pay that insurance premium for a reason. Get those yearly checkups on time and leave the wildly uneducated guesses to Dr. Nick.

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