In the span of twelve hours (in the past 18), I read two separate things that struck me… well, they left me… dumbfounded, really. Coupled with a third recent habit (can you couple to make three?), I find myself at a loss to express, let alone explain, all that I think of them except to say, “It’s a conundrum.”
Over the past 8 weeks, I took a class on the basics of graphic design. We covered basic principles of design, as well as how to use the Adobe products, Photoshop and InDesign. I learned a lot, including a gained (and unexpected) awareness of how often pictures that appear in magazines, websites, ads, etc. are manipulated. It happens so often, I now note, that I find myself questioning what the heck is real in any of these images anymore. It’s one thing to draw or paint a picture of a setting and throw an extra tree in to make it look nicer. There’s an expectation of interpretation in some artistic disciplines. I’m not sure that everyday photography carries with it the same.
Examples: I sit in a committee working on redesigning my library’s website. We’re looking for images to use in our rolling banner. We’re looking at other pages for other departments and come across a really lovely picture of the quad with students on it, having lunch, studying away. It’s on the department’s homepage, the one visitors will look at and say, “Ooh, how nice.” After a few seconds, someone in the group asks, “Were there ever any trees there?” And we all look closer and then we feel… well, what do we feel?
A few trees added to make the quad look nicer (nicer than it’s ever looked, but…). No harm, no foul. It’s like the three hamsters in tea cups. I mean, it’s pretty easy to tell it’s the same darned hamster copied and pasted three times over. It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s a joke. So the department’s website is a joke, too? You tell me.
People trust Wikipedia. There are have been stories and interviews ad nauseum on the topic of its credibility. I regularly see medical students with a page from Wikipedia open on the PC in front of them as I walk through the library. Not a big deal, I guess, if you’re looking for some basic info or perhaps a nice diagram. I recently had some surgery and one of the best diagrams of the artery involved in my surgery, I found on Wikipedia. It made it easy to share with family members or friends who wondered what and where the celiac artery was. In fact, there was a nice, condensed version (questionably lifted from an uncredited source) of the condition I had. Again, I had several very good journal articles from reputable society publications that I could pass along to others, but Wikipedia was a lot easier and just the right amount of information to share.
However, here’s a little snippet from an interview with the singer-songwriter, Lisa Hannigan, that I read last night before going to sleep:
Not everything is “perfect” in Hannigan’s world – her Wikipedia page, for one. “There’s so much misinformation about me there,” says Hannigan, sweetly. “Especially, all the stuff about me and Damien [Rice]. There was all this speculation about us after I left his band. [Hannigan sang with the singer-songwriter from 2001-2007. They also had a romantic relationship.] And all these supposed bad feelings and broken hearts. It was weird, but we sorted it out ages ago. Anyway, I wanted to change all the stuff about that on my Wiki page. But my page lady said, ‘Oh, it’s a conflict of interest for you to write your own stuff. And besides, the amount you want to change is too much!’ So, I’m stuck with all this stuff that isn’t true. Yes, my reign of terror against them has just begun.
You tell me, what do you do with these two examples? How can you reconcile them? How do you teach the credibility of sources? I’m still working out how I’m going to bring this example into my next lecture on such for a group of students. And I will. In the meantime, I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.
I refuse to go into any diatribe, pro or con, about the role and place of Google in our information searching behavior. I’m done with that. I simply want to present here something I read this morning in the book, Every Patient Tells a Story, by Lisa Sanders, M.D.
I picked up a copy of this book and had the author sign it when she spoke at the Annual Meeting of the North Atlantic Health Sciences Libraries a couple of weeks ago. Physician, professor, author, oft-sought-after speaker, and technical advisor to the television show, “House, M.D.”, Sanders’ book is an expansion on a column she’s written regularly for the New York Times Magazine over the past several years. (For more on Sanders, see this NPR story.) I’m only a few chapters into it, but it’s a good read. And she was a good speaker. But here you go… page 12:
Hsia (a first year resident at Yale) posed the question to the team. Neither had heard of such a syndrome. So, after the team had finished seeing all the patients they were caring for, Hsia hurried to find a computer. She went to Google and entered “persistent nausea improved by hot showers.” She hit the enter key and less than a second later the screen was filled with references to a disease Hsia had never heard of: cannabinoid hyperemesis – persistent and excessive vomiting (hyperemesis) associated with chronic marijuana use (cannabinoid).
So this admission wasn’t the first for this patient. She’d seen multiple doctors, received multiple diagnoses, and been given a plethora of treatments over the previous twelve months, all to no avail. Her chart was thick. The resident read all of it first. Maybe all of the doctors who saw the patient before had done some credible research on the case. Maybe not. We don’t know. All we know is the pattern of information searching by the doctor presented in this paragraph. All we know is that she went to Google and in less than a second had the right answer that had eluded everyone else up to that point.
Again, or perhaps for the third time, what to do with this? As a practitioner, consumer, producer, and teacher of how to seek, find, evaluate and use information, I’m left right now with only one really definite feeling – “It’s a conundrum.”