Google is not the same as science

Mamamia’s Mia Freedman challenges the emerging wave of ‘Google experts’.

There isn’t enough room in this newspaper to list all the things I don’t know. There’s not even enough room in Wikipedia which – if it were an actual book – would take you 123 years to read.

Recently though, there’s been an explosion of people with a wildly inflated sense of their own intelligence. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert.

Me, not so much. I understand how little I know about lots of things. For example, I know less about science than scientists. I know less about medicine than doctors. I know less about tax than my accountant, less about cooking than Donna Hay and less about animals than Bondi Vet.

There’s no shortage of genuine experts who have degrees, qualifications and years of experience in their fields. Having access to Google does not make you an expert, nor does having a website or watching a YouTube video. These things simply make you someone with an Internet connection.

“Everyone’s an expert today,” confirms social researcher Neer Korn “partly because we feel we need to be. We receive kudos for proclaiming our definitive knowledge to others and we compete to be the first to share facts, articles and videos.”

But reading some articles doesn’t put you on par with a scientist and here’s where it can become dangerous.

A few years ago, I worked with a lovely guy who had left school at 16. When his wife had their first child, he ‘did his research’ and they decided not to vaccinate their daughter. At the time, everyone around him insisted it was safe (and vital) but he was adamant. “I’ve read a lot about this and I watched this amazing video,” he insisted, “Vaccinations are just a way for big companies and the government to make money.”

Where do you start arguing the extreme illogic of that? Not here; I’d need more space and a wheelie bin full of rescue remedy. Because while I accept my former co-worker was a thoughtful person who meant well, I’m floored by the extraordinary assumption that he knew better than every scientist in the world – not to mention Bill and Melinda Gates who are spending hundreds of millions of their own dollars funding vaccination programs in third world countries to eradicate killer diseases like malaria.

What on earth could make a civilian believe his Google ‘research’ is superior to decades of science? Is it arrogance?
“The Internet has made expertise a mouse click away,” says Neer Korn. “And a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Just ask any GP who has to contend with self-diagnosing patients, determined they can identify their prognosis and treatment. They address them more as colleagues than patients, because they place their Internet search on par with the doctor’s years of expertise.”

Doctors really do live this every day. Says one of my friends who is a medical specialist: “You find yourself getting into these exhausting debates with patients who insist they’ve read something that goes against what you’re telling them. Unless you’re highly experienced, it can be extremely difficult to judge the credibility of the information you find online.”

Which brings me to the farcically named Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) which, despite its official-sounding name, is in fact a group of civilian self-styled ‘experts’ who campaign vigorously and at times misleadingly (according to findings by the HCCC) against vaccination both on their website and in the free talks they give around Australia, sometimes to expectant parents at pre-natal classes.

While publicly pedalling its anti-vaccination message, the AVN cleverly makes it sound like there are ‘two sides’ to the vaccination debate. In fact there aren’t two sides and there is no debate. On one hand there is science and there is none on the other hand.
Because no link between vaccination and autism has ever been found. None. Ever. What has been conclusively proven is that while they are not 100% perfect, vaccines are the best and only way to protect babies and children from diseases like whooping cough that can kill them.

And the personal choice argument? Well, it’s a bit like arguing that driving your car drunk is a personal choice. You see, the lives of babies too young to be vaccinated depend on herd immunity in the rest of the community. So the choice made by that man I worked with didn’t just affect his family. His well-intentioned yet ill-informed decision has the potential to harm my family. And yours.
Watching (or even producing!) a YouTube video with some cherry-picked statistics set to rousing orchestral music is not the same as having a university degree or having your research findings peer reviewed.

I’m baffled by this growing sense that everyone has the right – indeed the obligation – to challenge facts that have been established scientifically, independently and repeatedly over years, even decades.

“Do your research!” is the common faux clarion call of these so-called ‘experts’. These exhortations are usually accompanied by a helpful list of links to similarly skewed, scientifically baseless articles that back up their claims. It’s easy to mislead people with random graphs and alarmist statements.

I’m certainly not suggesting we become a flock of sheep or suspend critical thought. But I don’t need to ‘do my research’ before I vaccinate. Or before I accept that the earth is round and that gravity exists. Scientists far smarter than me have already done that research and the verdict is unanimous, thanks.

This week is Talk to an Expert week, an opportunity to connect with our health professionals about any health concerns we may have. Make an appointment to see your GP or Medibank members with hospital cover can phone the Medibank 24/7 Health Advice Line on 1800 644 325 to speak to a registered nurse.

Medibank members with hospital cover can phone the Medibank 24/7 Health Advice Line on 1800 644 325

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