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At the Speed of Light

I am reading a book which, on its surface, may seem to have little to do with evidence-based practice. The book is “Virtual Unreality,” by Charles Seife. It is about how the internet allows us to spread information faster than we have ever seen before, while reaching more people in more rapid a time frame than we could when we were younger. It has implications for how all of us use information.

I have often considered google to be our collective memory. Its presence has made it possible for us to no longer have to memorize as much information as we used to do. After all, information is just a mouse click or two away. In fact, the animated move “Inside Out” makes this case nicely when Joy and Sadness confront two worker-bees in memory who are going to delete memories of phone numbers. “They’re in her cell phone” says the worker-bee. And in fact, I cannot recall my own kids’ phone numbers as I write; they are entered into my cell phone.

What the web has done is allow us to fortify our preconceptions. We can find all sorts of support for what we believe, and narrowcasting has made it so that we are never exposed to counterfactual information. We know from cognitive research that confronting someone with counterproof to their strongly held beliefs does not lead them to discard their beliefs; rather, it causes them to double down on them and it strengthens them.

When we therefore search for information, we have to be aware of two facts. One is that information is mutable. Let me ask a question: would you go to a dictionary whose definitions could change on a moment-by-moment basis? No? Have you ever gone to Wikipedia? A second is that we have to have skills to cut through bias and misrepresentation. Thus, we need to learn skills not just to locate information but to correctly interpret it. This takes time. It is easy to find a paper that supports a preconceived idea you already have. That is not really using evidence properly; that is setting up an echo chamber. You need to look for high-quality information and use it, whether it supports your belief or not. It is not much a surprise to know that our profession tends to laud papers that support chiropractic, while attacking those that don’t. Sometimes the papers we laud may not deserve the affection those papers receive.

We live in a viral world, where ideas propagate at the speed of light. At times, this is not deserved and we need to be cautious. As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, let’s be careful out there.


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