Like myself, you’ve probably spent the last few years being bombarded with all kinds of online information. As a writer, I’ve wandered through free sites that have offered some excellent tips on improving my writing skills, and I’ve also been offered the ‘opportunity’ to purchase all kinds of revolutionary marketing services and all of the ‘secrets’ that will turn me into a bestselling author overnight.
At the same time, I see my Facebook and twitter feed filling up with health advice, life advice, and every possible permutation of every conspiracy theory ever invented by man. Not to mention the parenting tips.
It’s a minefield out there.
How do we all figure out what’s real and what’s not? That’s possibly the most difficult question of all. Some of my Facebook friends have been bombing everyone’s newsfeed with ‘articles’ on alternative health from one particular site over the last few weeks (which is what brought this particular subject to the forefront in my mind). It’s like they’ve all been infected with a sudden zeal to spread the word, so they’re doing it by ‘liking’ every new post on this particular site and ‘sharing’ it.
Out of interest today, our daughter and I decided to have a look at the page and see what was on there. It was there that I learnt that the best way to sort out my cramps (if I had any) was to infest my bed with corks, or possibly a bar of soap. As a physio, I’d suggest gently stretching the affected limb…
There was also a lady who posted a picture of her infant’s legs, covered with angry looking skin lesions. Two hundred and seventy four replies later, there were sixty-six different remedies suggested, including a bleach bath and using her own urine, and multiple suggestions to take the child off dairy, soy, gluten, sugar, no milk but eat cheese, do drink milk but only goat’s milk, no, not goat’s milk, only camel milk, no cow’s milk is OK, but only raw cow’s milk, eat sauerkraut, feed her coconut oil and…and…and… I’m guessing the lady’s head was buzzing with all the helpful advice.
So how do we make sense of all of that? The best answer is that individually we probably can’t. The internet is a boon – it’s a place where we can look for information about pretty well anything, but without a background in the appropriate field of study, we’re not qualified to provide advice or evaluate some of the information in a way that allows us to make good choices. As I’ve said, I’m a physio (for those in the US, that’s physical therapist), so I’m pretty good at figuring out what your musculoskeletal issues are. I can even pick up what we refer to as ‘red flags’ during and assessment and urge you to seek further assistance from your doctor to assess them, but I have my own professional limits.
I cannot fix an aeroplane, or advise you on cancer treatment, or even repair my bicycle (there’s a story to that which involves the purchase of a new one), because I’m not an expert in those areas and I don’t have the appropriate training or background knowledge.
I can look at a writing or publishing website and make some deductions, however. If the spelling’s all over the place and the grammar’s incorrect, I’m not going to look much further than the front page. If the site can’t get it’s own editing right, it’s certainly not going to be a place I look for help with my own. If another writer asks me what I think about that site, then I’ll point out the deficiencies and warn them off.
I’m also pretty good at looking at health related sites. If what the site suggests doesn’t fit with known physiological parameters and basic chemistry, then I won’t be looking any further there either. And no, I won’t be putting either corks or soap in our bed, even if either my husband or myself suddenly began to experience leg cramps. (The posters of the above neglected to mention the mechanism behind the cork and soap therapy, and nothing I know about physiology suggests any mechanism at all.)
So what does the average lay person do? How do they find their way through the internet minefield of information? There’s a couple of options. For health related information, I encourage people to look for the extension .edu.au or .gov.au if they live in Australia. Usually education or government sites have evidence based information that’s backed up by research and fact. For writing information, I encourage people to look at their State Writers Centre, the Australian Society of Authors, or reputable publishers (not vanity) and agents.
I reckon that the best comment I can make on the subject, is that there’s a reason we have experts in every field. We can’t possibly know everything, so we should respect those experts and listen to them when we’re looking at complicated subjects like health, keeping aeroplanes in the sky, fixing bicycles, writing correctly, or even learning to juggle. (A clown once explained it to me, but I wasn’t very good, but her explanation allowed our sixteen year old son to begin juggling three balls within about twenty minutes.)