We live in fascinating times. Our culture gives us overwhelming access to information. Some information is more reliable than other. One of the ways to make any piece of information sound more probable is to add words like ‘DNA’, ‘oscillation’ or ‘energy’ somewhere in the text. This combination of the features of the modern information society has some interesting implications. For example, imagine that it’s 11pm on Sunday evening. You are getting ready to go to sleep, relaxing while watching your favourite TV series streaming. Out of the blue, your left eyelid starts to twitch. You obviously don’t rush to an ER. You don’t even feel like going to a doctor the next day. You are, however, simply curious. You wonder whether it’s the 5 coffees a day or lack of the sunlight that caused it (you live in Sweden after all)… You start from asking “uncle Google” whether this is really serious or not and what you should do about it. This way, you can diagnose yourself. You can even find support groups without getting out of home. You can read about case studies, treatment options, prognosis and the name of the recommended specialist from your region. Maybe you even manage to find a webpage with a thorough information and advice. In many cases, this webpage may be enriched with a photo of a person in a white lab coat and a stethoscope. The webpage may recommend you eating more bananas or fewer apples and you may decide to follow this advice for a few days because it sounded like it had quite some scientific proof behind it. Very likely, your eyelid will stop twitching and you will not know for sure whether it is due to time or because you ate a banana every day. If your eyelid continues to twitch, you might decide to visit a general practitioner. Funnily enough, if the GP’s diagnosis does not stay in line with what you read on-line, you might classify this doctor as incompetent and decide not to follow his or her advice…
Do you recognize yourself in this description? Do you think that I am mocking you? Not at all! I have been describing myself all along! What is more, there is definitely nothing wrong in searching for information and in being critical. There is also nothing wrong in taking personal reasonability of one’s health. Finally, there are many valuable sources of information, especially if you need to find out some facts about, let’s say, a vitamin deficiency. The problem starts if you need reliable information about something much more serious. There are two sources of the problem. On the one hand, serious matters may require fast actions. Therefore, postponing the visit to a specialist might be dangerous. On the other hand, in case of complex health issues, you might find a lot of conflicting and confounding information. This is caused by a simple fact that there is still a lot to discover. We need many more controlled clinical trials to evaluate treatments. Furthermore, complex illnesses have complex origins and therefore, they are difficult to describe, define and treat. In some cases, cures are not available and treatments are limited and with low effectiveness. In this case, searching on-line might become very dangerous. Lack of definite information and specialist help creates a state of fear and frustration. Everybody hopes for a breakthrough and a novel effective treatment. Many new ideas come to surface and there are new promising treatments which often turn out to be ineffective. It is just how science works. Scientists have a new hypothesis and they test it. The process often takes many years. In some cases the result is positive, in other cases it turns out to be negative. Only after collecting all the results together, we can make one general analysis and check whether the original idea is true.
Sometimes things in science go ugly, though. Some people forget that good science takes time and repetition. They want to find an answer fast. Maybe some of them do it because they want to help patients. Maybe some of them are lured by fame and recognition which comes with solving big puzzles. Definitely, in case of very emotionally loaded health issues, it is easy to become a “guru” and give people false hopes by playing on their fears. A very good illustration of this is the belief that (or uncertainty whether) vaccinations cause autism. The whole story of how this idea developed and spread is brilliantly described by Ben Goldacre in his book called “Bad Science”. To cut the long story short, Andrew Wakefield came up with a hypothesis that increase in the number of autism cases is caused by the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. He conducted one study which supported his claims. Popular science articles picked up on the issue because of the importance of the topic. The finding was communicated to the general public as if it was certainly true and proving connection between vaccination and occurrence of autism. As a consequence, many parents decided not to vaccinate their children at least until the age of 3. It is noteworthy, that the original finding was checked by scientific community. This means that independent researchers repeated the analysis in different groups of patients. The result was always the same: there is absolutely no detectable connection between vaccinations and autism. You can however understand, that many parents did not read the abstracts published on the PubMed. Many are simply confused with the issue and do not know anymore whom to trust. The worst part of this story is the feeling of guilt put on a lot of parents. In this situation, many parents choose not to vaccinate their child “just in case” the hypothesis by Wakefield is correct. It will take decennia before this idea disappears from the consciousness of general public… This causes health risk for many children who do not receive their vaccine.
There are already many science blogs. You can doubt whether it makes sense to add another piece of information to the virtual space. I have my doubts too. But I think that the story described above, shows why it is worth to write (critical) popular science articles. Information is powerful! People need access to reliable information in order to make correct decisions. We all have different interests, education and knowledge. We are, however, exposed to scientific theories and findings on a daily basis. I can only hope that honest reports about scientific discoveries can help everybody to stay critical about what they read and not be taken away by false promises, fears and fashions.