Malnourished with malinformation

KnowledgeI’d argue that any amount of knowledge is a good thing. It is a little bit of information that is likely to trip you up.

As many of you know, I am a science and medicine writer in another life—the more lucrative one, but that’s not saying much—and so I spend many of my days immersed in the worlds of scientific and medical discoveries and blundering. I even spent several years working at a biochemistry bench as a scientist—you may genuflect, now—so I know the world of which I speak.

For this reason, I tend to view science and medicine as a work-in-progress, as so much noise with moments of signal. Rarely do I herald the hype and equally rarely do I despair the bumps.

To my friends who see every announcement as a breakthrough, I am a cynic. And likewise, to everyone who pounces on every setback as evidence of mass conspiracy, I am a complicit shill. Whatever.

The challenge comes when I engage in a discussion of the topic du jour, because more often than not, the person with whom I am talking is adamant that he or she knows the truth. They are empowered by something they have heard or read from a renown expert. They have information.

(Let me state here that I do not believe that I am the holder of all truths. I do feel, however, that I have a good handle on what I do not know, and just as importantly, what is not yet known for certain.)

So, let’s start with some definitions (purely mine) of information types:

Information: A collection of facts about a subject upon which someone can formulate a testable theory or postulate a conjecture.

Misinformation: Incorrect declarations that potentially lead one to false conclusions.

Disinformation: Knowingly false declarations for the purposes of misleading another group (e.g., counter-espionage, propaganda).

information triangle

I suggest, however, that we need another category to address the shade of grey between the positives of information and the negatives of mis- and disinformation.

Following the model of nutrition versus starvation, I propose we call this new category malinformation, with the following definition:

Malinformation: A collection of facts that, while true, is insufficient to formulate a definitive conclusion without the support of further facts.

Just as a malnourished person is not starving, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of nutrients to experience balanced health, a malinformed individual is not wrong per se, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of facts to experience balanced knowledge and understanding.

For example, people who change their eating habits because they read about a single study that showed a specific food extract reduced tumour size in mice. Or a clinician who has created a behavioural modification program to reduce addiction based on a thought exercise using largely unrelated studies.

Any of these decisions are based on legitimate data from legitimate studies, but often ignore (or simply don’t look for) alternative and/or possibly conflicting data from equally legitimate studies. Rather than analyze all available data before generating a theory, they find the malinformation that supports their beliefs and then stop; a little bit of data being taken to conclusions that simply are not supported.

Boom-bust

Maybe they’re right. But more likely, it is much more complicated.

In conversation, I find the malinformed much more intractable than the ill-informed. With the latter, there is a chance you can correct the misinformation. With the former, however, the mere fact that the malinformation is correct seems to be sufficient cause for them to defend the castle they have built in the sky. When you “yes, but” them, all they tend to hear is the “yes”.

In fairness, all information is technically malinformation as we will never have access to the complete knowledge of the universe. We are always going to be forced to make decisions based on limited knowledge.

But where more knowledge is available, I think there is duty to examine and understand it before becoming intractable in our positions.

If there is a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery, efforts should be made to learn more about the limitations of the science that led to the discovery. How far can you realistically extrapolate from those few data points?

In biomedical research, that which occurs in a mouse is, at best, a clue to what might happen in a human. Nothing more.

It could lead to the next step in scientific inquiry—the actual purpose of science—or to a dead end.

Belief is nice, but unless that belief is well founded on broad and balanced information, it is limiting and might be dangerous.

(Or at least, as far as I know based on my understanding of the available information.)

The most dangerous F word

Fear

Hate is fear rationalized. Hate is fear acted upon.

Hate is the belief that fear is finite; that if I bestow some of my fear on you, I am unburdened.

But that is a lie.

Fear isn’t of this universe. It doesn’t live by the E=mc2 paradigm. Fear has limitless potential for growth.

Any more than I can relieve myself of a pestilence by giving it to you, my fear remains and may even grow when I pass it along.

Surely a little fear is okay, keeps us from stepping off cliffs or traveling dark paths.

Fallacy.

Fear doesn’t keep us safe. Knowledge does.

Vista

Knowledge keeps you from stepping off the cliff. Fear keeps you from seeing the spectacular view.

Knowledge removes darkness from the alley. Fear keeps you from seizing new opportunities, from discovering new paths.

Fear doesn’t come into existence of its own accord but like a virus, is passed from person to person.

The newborn infant has no fear until startled by a parental “No”, the opening dose of fear.

infection

We do not naturally fear others until given a reason. And rarely is that reason the other we have chosen to fear, because fear rarely approaches face on.

Fear is the demon that eats us from inside, a parasite that controls our minds for its own perpetuation.

But what is worse, what makes it so insidious, is that fear is easy, demanding little of us other than that we close our senses to the truth.

And it is the facility with which so many of us are willing to do this that makes fear the most dangerous F word.

Burden

Snow drifting

(Image property of Duncan Rawlinson; http://duncan.co/tag/snowing/)

(Image property of Duncan Rawlinson; http://duncan.co/tag/snowing/)

From thousands of feet, the snowflake made its way from its misty nursery to a gentle caress of Henry’s cheek, slowly melting where ice meets the dampened skin to puddle with its fallen brethren.

Henry faces the sky, his back firmly planted in the snow bank, the drift slowly cocooning him as the crystalline waters descend, tears of boreal gods.

Flakes weave with the hairs of his beard, completing the whitening that age has yet left undone, his thinning scalp protected by the few remaining threads of a toque too old to be merely ancient.

Pedestrians trundle by, eyes held askew, muttering their disapproval as they bow their heads against the wind and cold. But he remains oblivious to their stares and sneers, in a world of his own, one with the thickening storm that swaddles him.

Henry doesn’t feel the cold they feel. He doesn’t feel the wind they fight. Nor does he feel the latex-gloved hands that lift him to the gurney as an unusually cold winter claims another life.

Militaria

I used to be naive;

Without understanding

Of how things worked;

That men and women

Must, on occasion,

Stand up and say no

To sins of Society

To evils of Man

To pain from Nature.

Uniforms were anathema,

Symbols of unthinking,

Mindless drones of hate,

Warriors of destruction.

But now I am older,

More aware of my world,

And I bow my head

In reverence of lives

Sacrificed, dedicated

To helping the infirm,

Defending the weak,

Lifting the downtrodden.

Apologies for past slights

And eternal gratitude.

Photos from the Canadian Armed Forces display at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) last month.