The dangers of self-diagnosis
The Internet has arguably been the most transformative invention of the 20th century, maybe even of all human history. Never before has information flowed so freely and so rapidly around the world. When used with discernment, it can catalyze profound improvement in the quality of life for individuals, nations, and entire generations. The compelling ideas of great thinkers can now reach the minds of eager readers almost instantaneously through news feeds, social media, and blogs (a curious contraction of the phrase “web logs”). Gone are the days that book and periodical publishers control the pace and content of information released to the public. In the age of the Internet, anyone can say anything at any time to whoever will listen.
The Internet has also changed our independence by providing the average person with step-by-step instructions for things once only performed by tradesmen. YouTube videos cover just about any do-it-yourself job you can think of from replacing the alternator on your 2001 Ford Ranger to converting that old oak TV cabinet into an armoire for your teenage daughter. Combined with do-it-yourself stores like the Home Depot and Lowe’s, YouTube is empowering homeowners to maintain and improve their own properties and vehicles, giving private contractors and auto shops some serious competition. And craft sites like Pinterest and Etsy now make it possible for anyone to be artsy-craftsy.
I am especially grateful for the accountability that comes with global news reporting through the Internet. Dictators who could once hide their atrocities are now exposed to the world by professional and amateur reporters using the Web, Facebook, and Twitter. The realities of human rights violations or the effects of natural disasters in the remotest regions of the globe are brought to light in a matter of minutes through crowdsourcing, the invisible network of wires and satellites connecting us all through hand-held devices. Regimes with something to hide have resorted to banning the Internet and murdering bloggers who expose their treachery. George Orwell could never have foreseen the Internet and the sheer impossibility of 1984’s Oceania with its worldwide manipulation and control.
But all this information, and misinformation, at the fingertips of virtually every human being on the planet doesn’t come without its dangers. Anyone with an Internet connection can post anything they like to the Web without being held accountable for accuracy (they even let me have a blog!). Misinformation, opinions, and outright lies are just as welcome as facts. Racist hate manifestos, calls for anarchy, detailed instructions for making bombs, and pornography that demeans women and enslaves men are all available with the click of a mouse or the tap of a fingertip. The discernment skills necessary to safely navigate the content of the Internet today are far beyond what was required two decades ago, in the days when information was retrieved more slowly, from sources that had been first vetted by people with presumed expertise. The world of information and ideas has changed effectively overnight.
One of the many dangerous allurements the World Wide Web provides is the temptation to diagnose our own illnesses. We mistakenly believe that (1) most information on the Internet is reliable, and (2) armed with good information, we can do as good of a job as a doctor at diagnosing illnesses and prescribing a remedy. Neither of these, however, is a safe bet.
The next time you have a cold, Google your symptoms. In ten minutes you’ll be convinced it’s not a cold but rather lupus. Search for causes of that twitch your eye does every night before bed and soon you’re telling your mother on the phone that you have Parkinson’s disease. The next time you are vomiting, don’t be surprised when the Internet informs you that you only have a few months to live due to a brain tumor.
Safe and accurate diagnosis requires wisdom that only comes with experience working with patients in a clinic, making self-diagnosis a risky business. The knowledge and understanding that come from four years of college, another four years of medical school, two to eight more years of residency, and treating a couple thousand patients cannot be replaced by twenty minutes on the Net, no matter how savvy one is.
I had a mystery illness in 2014 and after two months of negative test results, the doctors were running out of ideas.
You would think that as a trained scientist I would know better. But I was growing desperate, so I turned to the Internet for possible answers. Giardiasis, Ebola hemorrhagic fever, Addison’s disease, multiple sclerosis, brain tumor. My head spun with the possibilities, and the fear swelled to a crescendo within me. One after the other, however, the doctors ruled out the most serious alternatives, leading to relief mingled with fear and frustration.
No doubt about it: self-diagnosis is dangerous business.