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What To Google When You Get Sick (And How To Think Like A Journalist When You Do)

Shannon Harvey

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.

“I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
Don’t get me wrong, as a journalist-turned blogger and filmmaker, I’m a card-carrying member of the digerati. Under the click-bait fueled, new media economic model, you’d be hard pressed to find any mainstream media organisation that would pay me actual money to do the kind of investigative health deep dives that I do.

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.

1. Use Helpful Search Terms
Forget googling phrases such as “cure for [your ailment]” and “alternative medicine for [your ailment].” Most of the results are “Search Engine Optimised,” meaning that people have been paid to hack the Google algorithm. The top results are not what is most true or most reliable, but merely what is most popular or systematically optimised. Instead, use specific search terms and include words such as “evidence,” “research” and "scientific studies" into your phrases.

2. Search in Scientific Data Bases
The good thing about the vast webiverse is that it’s never been easier to access published, peer-reviewed, academic research. Free membership to my State and Federal libraries has given me digital access to pretty much every medical journal ever printed. I also recommend Medline (PubMed) – the free and vast medical database produced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and one of my favourite websites in the world. I usually start with literature reviews and meta-analysis’ which are helpful summaries done by a team of experts and provide references from which to dive deeper.

3. Follow Credible Experts
In deciding which experts I included in my 2014 film The Connection, I consulted Professor Ann Harrington from Harvard, whose book The Cure Within looks at the history of mind-body medicine. She advised that I should look for experts who were willing to both talk about the evidence that proves a mind-body-health connection, but also those willing to talk about the research flaws and outstanding questions.

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.


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