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.)

Maps quest

In another life, I could have been a cartographer. I simply love maps.

Road maps. Old maps. Topographical maps. Biological maps. I love maps.

It is probably truer to say that I love visual information presentation, but let’s stick with maps.

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As a kid, I remember staring at maps that came out of the National Geographic or in my books and literally tracing the courses of rivers with my fingers, trying to understand what their winding patters told me about the lands through which they passed.

I would look at maps in history books, and see how topographical features literally and figuratively changed the course of civilization. There are several reasons, for example, why Montreal sits where it does, but most of them are geographical.

(Magazine art for my article on efforts to understand how proteins bind drug molecules.)

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Later in my life, I would draw maps—at first geographical, but later biological. The biochemical mechanisms that cells and organs use to communicate, to rejuvenate, to function are maps unto themselves, each criss-crossing with others, offering alternate routes to the same destination. The latter point is why diseases like cancer are so hard to treat.

Maps allow me to take journeys, but not just in the physical sense of providing direction. They also give a factual tether to my fantastical imaginings. I can go places I may never visit, understand things unfathomable, while pouring over a map.

And map systems like Google Street View have added to those imaginings. Often, when I write, I will visit the setting of my story on Google Street View to help me paint a more vivid picture of the location. Sometimes this makes my narrative sound more like a travel brochure, but that’s my fault and can easily be handled with editing. The important thing is that the reader gets the essence of what I’m trying to convey.

(Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. Setting for the climax of my murder thriller screenplay)

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My writing itself is a map. Like Google Street View, I am only giving the reader what fits within a specific frame, in essence guiding the reader. But at the same time, I cannot control what the reader thinks or how the reader feels as he or she journeys through my word jungles.

Just as with my childhood adventures of following rivers and mountain chains, the reader is free to layer his or her own imaginings on top of mine. And so, I have written not just one story, but hundreds or thousands.

Hunh?

I guess I became a cartographer, after all.

(Overview of my neighbourhood in downtown Toronto.)

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