A friend of mine recently had a particularly nasty gastro bug that landed her in hospital. She sent me a link she’d found after googling her ongoing post-hospital symptoms. The online article was written by a blogger who had experienced a very similar illness to my friend’s and whole-heartedly prescribed a recovery path for others, which involved a restricted diet plan and special probiotics.
I totally understand why my friend had turned to Dr Google. She’d been pronounced “better” and booted out of hospital after consulting with a specialist doctor for a grand total of eight minutes. Two weeks later, she was still feeling utterly exhausted and unable to eat anything without it going straight through her. In an age with 4.45 billion webpages at her finger tips, with 550,000 new sites being created every 24 hours, it was only natural for my friend to conclude that someone, somewhere would know what she was going through and tell her how to fix it.
This is similar to my own experience after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease 14 years ago. As I wrote in my piece There is NO Secret – How I Learned The Truth About Big Wellness The Hard Way, I often felt my doctors saw me as little more than a set of test results. So when, despite adhering to their recommendations, I was still sick, of course I turned to alternatives.
It wasn’t until I’d spent tens of thousands of dollars and been taken for a ride by a particularly unscrupulous company, that I finally started to learn about the importance of scientific thinking and I began to apply the critical thinking skills that I’d learned as a journalist to my health.
Since then, the landscape of the Wild West Web has become even more difficult to navigate. There are now more unfiltered, unquestioned, and unaccountable perspectives, opinions, and solutions than ever and this has paved the way for a proliferation of well-meant misinformation at best, and potentially harmful pseudo-scientific quackery at worst.
One story that exemplifies my concerns is that of Wikipedia “expert” Essjay, who had the privileged keys to edit thousands articles on the new media encyclopedic bible and caused a storm when it was revealed that he was not, in fact, a tenured professor of religion at a private university, but rather 24-year-old Ryan Jordan from Louisville.
As the real professor, Tom Nichols wrote in his piece The Death of Expertise, in the Information Age, real experts have been replaced with the “wisdom” of the crowd.
But, as I pointed out to my well-intentioned Dad recently when he introduced me to someone as a “wellness blogger,” the work I do is founded on a masters degree in journalism, which taught me how to synthesise the material provided by credible experts into a (hopefully) compelling account of how to live better. It took me four years to make my feature film The Connection and two years to write my book, which includes dozens of interviews with leading experts and draws on over 1000 academic studies, which are all referenced in the back for those who want to go further.
Fortunately, the public debate around the perils of digital content is underway and gaining momentum. I like the idea of an online ratings system that goes further than today’s film and TV ratings and more closely resembles nutritional information on food packaging. I also believe that critical thinking should be a significant, compulsory subject taught throughout the school system.
As for my friend with the tummy troubles, it turned out she didn’t need an eight-week, gut-cleansing diet plan or access to exclusive probiotics. Instead, she focussed on re-establishing a healthy, diverse and balanced gut microbiome, by eating a high fiber, whole-food diet, free of junk. Last I heard, she’s now doing great.
So on that note, I thought I’d share the same three things I told her to consider in order to think like a journalist.
This has proven to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given. I now steer clear of anyone who promises miracle cures and secret solutions. I’m also wary of the “MD” and “PhD” label that get brandished after author’s names to boost credibility. Instead, I look at their job title. Are they affiliated with a world-leading academic organisation? Often that’s a good sign.
Finally, remember, experts aren’t always right, but they’re far more likely to be right than you are.