Dr Net

I’ve heard of people that self-diagnose based on information from the net, but a couple of recent incidents really made me aware of how dangerous it can be.

One friend called me up and asked me if I knew anything about a particular treatment. The treatment involved radiation, so it sounded pretty scary to her and she didn’t want to agree to it without looking into it. For reasons unclear to me, her specialist didn’t give her any background information on the treatment. Both of us found that the information on the internet was scant, limited to alternative therapy sites.

Another friend casually mentioned that she had “worked out” what was wrong with her toddler when she had a sudden screaming attack after her bath. She’d put the symptoms into Google and made a diagnosis based on what came up. It was at night and not quite urgent enough to go to Emergency, she said. But she didn’t even go to the doctor the next day.

Information on the internet is varied. Some sites are for practitioners and have disclaimers for patients. Type “cancer cure” into Google and lots of dodgy stuff comes up, including sites selling Laetrile, which is toxic. Generally if you put in a specific disease you’ll find organisations dedicated to it with good quality information. But typing in symptoms brings up a hodgepodge of different sites, and it can be hard to tell the good from the bad.

Not to mention the concern of self-diagnosis, regardless of the source. One of my friends who works as a medical receptionist told me she’s “had cancer six times”. That is, she’s thought she had it.

Of course, the increased access to information that the internet obviously provides increases the scope of this problem. Perhaps the general public needs better medical education to combat this, since something is obviously lacking in medical care. Probably access, sufficient explanations of diseases and treatments, and just plain old reassurance.

The science of blogging*

This week New Scientist has a special feature called “The cult of us” about online living, mainly social networking and blogging. Since I blog, I was obviously very interested in what they had to say.

The first thing that hits you about the blogosphere is the sheer enormity of it:

Blogging extends well beyond teen diaries, however … according to a website called Technorati, which monitors the blogosphere. It says it is currently tracking 51.3 million blogs worldwide, and claims that 75,000 new blogs are created every day – that’s almost one per second. The blogosphere is 100 times bigger than it was three years ago, a doubling in size roughly every six months.

Is it good or bad? The article linked above shrugs off its effect on teenagers thusly:

Online socialisation is just an extension of the kind of interactions that people have daily by phone, text message and email…

They did have an interview with someone more critical, here:*

But just as not all information put on the web is true, not all aspects of the new sociality should be celebrated. We communicate with quick instant messages, “check-in” cell calls and emoticon graphics. All of these are meant to quickly communicate a state. They are not meant to open a dialogue about complexity of feeling.

The internet, or even just the blogosphere, is incredibly diverse. Certainly there’s the trap for teenagers to write and talk in netspeak, which limits them to superficiality. But by blogging, there’s also room for them to open up. To use strangers as a soundboard for their “what ifs”. When I was a teenager, I often wondered what would happen if I said or did something inappropriate. What would the consequences be? I’ll never know about the things I wasn’t game to say or do. But if blogs had existed then, maybe I could have asked my readers. Beyond socialising, it can actually get quite deep. As any teenager will tell you.

That said, I think it is an issue that it takes away from one’s time alone. Speaking for myself here, I don’t have a great deal of time to myself, and what time I do have is often spent online (yes, I’m an addict). Is it a bad thing? Should I be meditating or walking alone on the beach instead? I’m not sure if time spent truly alone has any intrinsic value. But it might, and if it does, there are millions of people out there who just need to switch off for a while.

* Unfortunately these articles are subscription only. I recommend the subscription though!


There were two prominent deaths today here in Australia.
Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter: the loud, boisterous champion of wildlife was killed by a sting ray barb in Queensland. Irwin’s death is tragic: a man “in his prime” killed in a freak accident, leaving behind a wife and two small children. But the nation is feeling this loss too. On MSN’s instant messenger program, people are adding (tu), which codes for a turtle symbol, to their names in his honour. Steve Irwin was a proud ambassador for Australia’s wildlife and did more for conservation than many less interesting, noble organisations. The environment needs more heroes like him.

Of slightly less note (judging by the hits on Google News, at least) is the death of a fine Australian author, Colin Thiele. Thiele was a master of his craft, best known for Storm Boy and The Water Trolley. When I was in Grade Five we studied Storm Boy and the short stories published with it. I cried through Storm Boy and laughed through The Lockout. But the story that affected me the most was The Shell. It’s been a long time since I read it, but if I remember correctly, the story was about a family who go down to the beach. The mother wants a beautiful shell that she can see, and she gets it, but her husband and son are swept out to sea. It was the first time I saw nature as something powerful impossible to bend to human will; fascinating and terrifying. Thiele obviously had a great respect for nature that was totally different from Irwin’s, but in the end, sadly, Irwin proved Thiele’s point.

The world we live in can be frightening and mysterious but I think that approaching it with Irwin’s enthusiasm is important. There are forces in nature that can overwhelm us, but there are also delicate and vulnerable aspects, and they need to be protected.

Is it in our nature?

Although some of the events of the past week or so have made me want to go back to bed and hide under the covers (out of embarrassment and denial), it’s impossible not to write about the race riots at Cronulla.

There’s the cringe factor, wondering what the rest of the world must think of us (and how it will affect our relations with them). There’s the element of fear, that this kind of sentiment is what led to the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and other race/creed-based genocides. The fear that until it’s over, there’s no way of knowing how far it will go.

But beyond that, I have to wonder why this kind of thing happens. Psychology of mob behaviour is complex, and it can cascade quite unbelievably: see Mass hysteria at Melbourne Airport. But I’m not just talking about the actions; I’m talking about what makes a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist, or even what motivates a teenage boy to write “we grew here, you flew here” in permanent marker on his chest.

A letter in last week’s New Scientist, Born to be good, made me think. The letter is about cooperative behaviour in animals and humans (if you want to make a distinction); the author believes that moral behaviour is behaviour that strengthens the group. Critically, he describes the hunter-gatherer mentality as “cooperative, comradely, compassionate and, if necessary, self-sacrificing, as well as hostile to outsiders [my emphasis]”. Xenophobia is so ubiquitous; it has caused so much bloodshed and has hardly helped civilisation as a whole. But what if it’s an evolved trait; something that’s in all of us, and the only variation is the degree to which we use our rationality to disarm it?

It’s not a happy thought. It might just be enough to really make me want to go back to bed.