It has been said that we are as a nation are becoming more sceptical—more cynical, even. At any time of any day you can pop onto the Internet, into a chat room or onto Twitter, and watch the questioning hordes doing battle. At first glance dynamic and reassuring, it’s all too easy to sit back and think, “Yes, this is what we need; with this kind of egalitarian debate, bullshit will be brought to light.” And that, for the most part, is true.
Or is it?
I was recently watching this video featuring Ben Goldacre, in which he sheds light on the frightening bias towards the publication of positive trial results in academic pharmaceutical journals. It’s a powerful indictment—not only of a sector of the scientific community that we all should be able to trust (though many of us don’t), but of us as individuals, of our willingness to blithely accept—even as we insist we are sceptical, at the very least—what we are told.
This extends beyond the realm of pharmaceutical companies, of course. In various ways, we all buy into something to one degree or another—whether it be psychics who always look surprised when we turn up unannounced or the life-lengthening benefits of mushy peas (yes, okay, that last one’s probably just me). And, all said and done, does it really do any harm? I mean, people do, after all, have the right to believe whatever they want, and try whatever they want, don’t they? It’s not like lives are being ruined and lost, now, is …
Well, of course—that is exactly the issue. Even outside the realms of science and medicine, simply accepting what we are told can and often does have grave consequences (pun very definitely intended). Twitter is a prime example. I don’t want to refer to any particular incident, not wishing to draw further attention to comments which may very well be actionable. But I only have to watch my Twitter feed for a few minutes to see numerous tweets and re-tweets that profess an informed opinion but which, on further investigation, prove to be insubstantial. For the most part, this is unimportant and easily dismissed—except for one very worrying factor: it fosters complacency.
The lives we lead are speeding up. The demands on our time are increasing. More and more, we find ourselves browsing headlines and moving on—without getting down to the nitty-gritty, to the time-consuming detail. And that in itself is not a problem. Until we decide to share that information.
Given the demands we all face, the constant battle going on for our attention, rigour is needed. However trusted the individual, don’t simply accept that they are right. Think. Question. Test. Then, and only then, take the pill or re-tweet the tweet.
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© 2012 Gary William Murning