In the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the eighth circle of hell is reserved for the fraudulent - cheats, false counselors and liars to name a few. When in the grip of another bout of insomnia-induced Internet surfing, I can't help but think of the blogosphere as its modern incarnation. Can there be a period in human history where more excrement came pouring out of the mouths of more people? Can't recall any. In some part I have to think that the frightening rise in pseudoscience around the world is due in no small part to the corossive and self-reinforcing aspect of a lot of Internet content. Four things become very easy in the modern information age (other than the the obvious obfuscation of facts). One, there are no longer any filters to publication of anyone's thoughts or perspectives. Two, it has become very easy to find similarly inclined individuals who reinforce these perceptions. Three, people's discomfort with uncertainty can be salved by reading strongly opinionated drivel playing fast and loose with the facts, And four, other than intramural derision there is little in the way of policing. These faults explain in part why false ideas such as ID creationism and shamanism have become harder to eradicate than crab grass.

Those with only a passing acquaintance with truth have come to believe (unfortunately not without justification) that volume and popularity ultimately decide what the average pliable brain will come to accept. This is intolerable.

I can't do anything to fix this other than to fix this little spot in the fray. I won't promise not to post any lame poems or satire that misses the mark, but I will work toward doing a better job of citing the peer-reviewed references for my posts and being clearer about what is well established vs more anecdotal. From time to time I also plan to present a candidate site or two that deserves to be consigned to e-Malebolge and would urge you to do the same. But if you are thinking of nominating Focus on the family or the Discovery Institute sites they are disqualified - they have already been consigned to the ninth circle of hell.


Asylum Seeker said...

"being clearer about what is well established vs more anecdotal"

Yeah...I think I should do that myself. But, then again, I already babble enough as it is...

Anywhere where a person can idly leave a comment of two or three sentences length anonymously is susceptible to the flood of bad ideas that the unthinking e-hordes will leave behind like a trail of mucus. The bigger the site, the more mindless the chatter and the more vicious will their complaints become. Blogs are a good example, but they are hardly the only affected by the madness of the cyberwebs. I've heard someone compare internet comments to graffiti written on a bathroom wall. An apt comparison.

Stacy S. said...

Luckily, it's easy to erase blog graffiti. :-)

So - Pliny, how much 'woo' do you deal with? Are there lots of crystal healing, palm reading, witch doctors near you?

The reason I ask is - I seem to remember a lot of that in the Pac NW - and even though it's a different type of woo than what's down here in the South, it doesn't seem quite as harmful.

I'm wondering what you saw that inspired this post?

" In some part I have to think that the frightening rise in pseudoscience around the world is due in no small part to the corossive and self-reinforcing aspect of a lot of Internet content."

These people seem a little more educated to me than the sort down here - and a lot more pleasant as well. They don't seem to get offended by science but just seem to say...

"Well since THAT didn't work - why don't you try this?"

I guess I'm just saying "Buyer Beware".

Yes it's nice to cite the peer-reviewed references,(and it makes people want to return - so I'm NOT trying to talk you out of it!) but really it's up to the individual to do their own research.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

seeker - you are a true person of Internet Letters. I am but an egg at turning a phrase.

Stacy: the PNW is overrun with alternatives to healthcare. Other than California, I think we lead.

I was at a meeting where we were discussing the project i've been working on for the last 10 years or so and a number of non-MD practitioners got really upset with me when I said that the AI systems would only be instructed using peer-reviewed and validated evidence based approaches. How narrow minded of me they accused. I suggested that it would take years to program the systems just with what we knew was true let alone anything less conclusive. They got very belligerent and I suggested (perhaps a bit too hotly, I'm afraid) that they should create their own system and let's have them go head to head in a controlled trial. No takers. Since then they have been actively opposing the development of the system because we aren't open minded enough. I see enough bad medicine from people trained as MD's. To be frank I don't have the bandwidth to address the rest.

Seeking truth seems to have become somewhat of a tractor pull of late with more and more BS weighing down progress until its wheels just start spinning.

But I suppose the vaccination debate is what is most worrisome to me. Our country has forgotten what it's like suffer under killing epidemics like we once experienced. I hope our lack of historical perspective doesn't end up biting us in the bottom.

Stacy S. said...

Peer reviewed evidence based approaches? How DARE you!!

Yes - I can see how that would be upsetting. And I suppose they feel like they are being 'Expelled'.

Do you think they will try to push their 'woo' into Med School?

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Stacy - they already do. As part of our societal inability to distinguish prejudice and insensitivity from prudence and good sense, students are exposed to an increasing dose of alternatives to healthcare. This coupled with the inability of a lot of primary care residency programs to fill means that many residents are products of such training to begin with.

One such graduate ended up seeing my father-in-law for some convoluted reason and convinced him that he did not have a well documented chronic disease but rather some vitamin deficiency. It took me hours of re-education to re-convince him to go back on his meds.

I have no problem at all with taking a holistic approach to care but only one based-upon physiology, anatomy and behavioral psychology to name a few.

They definitely think this is just a clash of cultures rather than a matter of scientific efficacy and they do feel expelled. Being called on the carpet though is an expectation of all true medical researchers.

If you ever get to attend a good scientific medical meeting, do so - it is highly entertaining and not for the faint of heart. Presenters have to be prepared to take a beating before their views are generally accepted (assuming they are at all).

science is true blood sport and one has to come prepared. Polite conversation and acceptance is not a reasonable expectation at one of these affairs. New ideas have to survive trial by fire and woowishers are often not willing to run that gauntlet.

Lastly, if you read the history of medicine in this country (I WILL go to my library and look up a good citation for this to add later ;)) it is maddening that the battle between scientifically based care and woodom was fought and won during the early years of the 20th century. Like creationism it is disheartening to see how some bad ideas are like hydras and keep coming back.

Michael Lockridge said...

I suspect that the Internet has set us up for a very interesting ride. It is a bit like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Wiki, anyone?

The threat of uncontained information/disinformation was probably the initial motivation for various authoritarian orders, many of which have been religious in nature. The power corrupted, of course. Those were/are fun times, eh?

It will be very interesting to see what the Internet does to contemporary authoritarian orders, such as China. It is hard to keep that authority when you have lost control of information.

Yep, a very fun ride. I do believe we live in very interesting times.