Don’t Let Misinformation Kill You

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Image by Rodrigo Galindez via Flickr

Lately my news sources of choice have all been on the internet, mainly for the reason that I can skip the sports segment and read the sections that actually interest me. But in reading the latest developments in the Shirley Sherrod hoopla, I am reminded that we are rarely- very, very rarely getting the whole story about anything we read online or see on the news.

I had a big dose of this lesson in my personal life just this week where an overheard conversation I had with one party turned into a frustrated email from another party. Remember the game Telephone from childhood? Where a message would be passed from person to person and in the end you wound up with a completely different message than from when you started? Same concept. In Shirley’s case, the small bits of information that got passed cost her a job. In my case, it caused unnecessary tension between myself and some of my family members.

In cases of health and chronic illness, it can cost you your life.

What’s Your Two Cents Worth?

Let’s get right down to it- everyone has an opinion on everything. I have opinions. You have opinions. You dog or cat has opinions. And people are always willing to throw these opinions at you, whether you want to hear or not. On one hand, hearing new ideas can be very good. In the past, my doctors have pointed me to new medications, new treatments and clinical trials that I would have had no other way of knowing about. Friends who are heavily into alternative therapies have given me great ideas on changing my diet, and managing my stress without chemicals. New ideas and information is a great thing and should never be dismissed out of hand.

That said, it’s equally important to not base your actions only on what you might have heard or what someone told you. The information might be incomplete or have been mangled from source to source – or it just might not be the best option for you.With so much information now available on the internet, it may be overwhelming, but there’s no excuse for rushing forward ill-informed.

While wading through the massive amount of information available to us now, there are some simple guidelines to keep in mind that will help you cut through the jumble and make finding useful information a little bit easier.

  • Narrow down what you want. The internet is bursting at the seams with information about everything from dying your pet’s fur to building a fully self-sufficient house. It’s easy to get sidetracked or overwhelmed when you’re looking for something. A good place to start is to take a few quiet moments to ask yourself what areas in your life do you want to improve? Is your exercise routine not working for you? Do you need something gentler? Are your symptoms not being managed as well as you need them to be? Are you stressed, but don’t know how to begin relaxing? Do you want to eat healthier? Make a quick list of what you’d like to work on and just focus on one. Narrow that one down even more- if you want to eat healthier, does that mean cooking healthier foods or maybe finding organic produce in your area or even just finding a nearby restaurant with healthier dishes? The more specific you are in what information you need, the easier it will be to sort through what you find online.

Quick Tip: If your first searches don’t turn anything up, try different combinations of keywords. If “I want to eat healthy” is too vague, try other combinations or words such as “easy ways to eat healthy” or “easy healthy recipes” or “how do I eat healthy?” Make a list of keywords before starting your search.

  • Prioritize your sources. Not all sources are created equal, so it’s handy to have a mental checklist of qualifications required for what you read or hear. Is the “holistic” website you’re reading mostly comprised of ads and pop-ups trying to sell you something? Is that “medical authority” a doctor you’ve never heard of? Does you personal doctor or pharmacist always have an ear on the latest medical treatments? Do you have a friend who knows every local farmer at the market by name? Get someone “in the know” on your side and count on them to give you an insider insight into the latest news.
  • But don’t be wowed by titles. While medical degrees and awards are a great thing- they also don’t tell the whole story. There are plenty of fantastic doctors who have never won an award and there are plenty of doctors who have walls full of them – but are awful with patient care and follow-up. There are gurus and mystics and naturalists with books and audio programs and thousand-dollar workshops on how to relax. There are also church knitting circles or that friend who loves to go bird-watching. Don’t always assume that a higher status always equals a better, smarter or more enlightened opinion.
  • Don’t be afraid to dig deeper. If something seems a little fishy about what you’re reading, or if it seems too good to be true- note it down and look into it further. Look up any complaints that might be on record against that doctor who’s just a little too pushy about some exotic treatment that you’re not comfortable with. Ask questions – even if they seem silly or even embarrassing. Read conflicting views on a topic – and then read the most neutral facts you can find. My father always advised me to read everything, but believe nothing. By which he meant not to take anything I read to heart, but to just be aware of it. Read, be aware, and make the best choice that you can.
  • Start off slowly. This is especially important when it comes to treatments. Be gentle with your body and take small steps. If there is an herb or natural treatment you want to try, speak with your doctor, research to understand how the chemicals of the plant might react with the chemicals already in your body and (if no red flags pop up), try a little bit. Keep a record of how you feel and any bodily effects that happen, good or bad. Obviously, stop if you experience any troubling sensations and see your doctor.
  • Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Admitting that you made a mistake can be very painful – often people will cling even more tightly to false or even dangerous ideas because they don’t want to face the fact that they invested however much time and/ or money in something that hasn’t panned out. It can make you doubt your intelligence and cause you to feel awkward about making decisions in the future. That said, progress can’t made if you aren’t willing to let go and start again. A plant will only grow so much in a small pot of soil and a little water. Unless you want it to die, the plant will eventually need fresh soil and new water to flourish. Another saying of my dad’s was along the lines of being wrong the first time is not a mistake – it’s learning. It’s only when you knowingly repeat the same thing, that you have a problem.
  • And finally, listen to your gut. In the end, there’s also no reason to push yourself. If you are currently content and satisfied with how your illness is being managed, then don’t change anything. If you’re curious about a treatment, but very nervous about trying it, speak to your doctor, do more research – there’s no reason to jump into anything immediately unless your health is in a critical state.

Living in the “Information Age” is a great opportunity – you can exchange ideas with other countries and gain knowledge that generations before ours couldn’t even imagine. But with that comes responsibility and awareness. The internet is not an all-knowing deity – it’s created by people. And people can write information that is incomplete, misleading and even intentionally dangerous. Proceed with caution and common sense and restraint.

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