Carl Sagan was famous for teaching people to maintain a healthy skepticism in life, to develop their own “baloney detection kit.” I agree. One nuance I’d like to add, though, is that skepticism does not need to equal cynicism. We all know the cynical critics who tend to dismiss everything. They’re not much fun to be around for long periods of time. What’s more difficult, but I would argue more desirable, is to maintain a healthy skepticism while preserving a more cheerful outlook on life.
Here are the facts. Medical science is ever changing. Physicians know this but the general public often does not. In every medical school, some seasoned professor warns, “half of what you’ll be learning in medical school will eventually be proven false.” That may or may not be an overstatement, but the general point is valuable.
Science is only as good as its methods and its practitioners, and its practitioners are human. Equally relevant is that not all “good” studies have an equal shot at publication and, therefore, dissemination via the press. Positive results trump negative results. Furthermore, studies are notoriously hard to replicate. The same study done twice often leads to different results—a vexing reality. (See this recent piece in the Economist for further elaboration on this interesting conundrum.)
Consider these 3 reasons why I believe it’s a good idea to develop and maintain your own “baloney detection kit,” particularly when it comes to medicine and healthcare.
1. You will become a more savvy patient or caregiver. If you hear about a study that sounds too good to be true, you may be inclined to do more digging, to seek second opinions, and to do your own thinking. These are all the tactics of a savvy consumer, or patient. Healthcare is a collaborative effort between healthcare providers and patients, and you’ll be more effective at your part.
2. You will maintain more flexibility as science changes and new studies emerge. If you’re too set in your ways (“I take gingko biloba every day to stave off Alzheimer’s and I will do so without fail for the rest of my life”) you may end up, at worst, harming yourself or, at least, wasting time and money and enduring the raised eyebrows of friends and family.
3. You will not be so crestfallen when it turns out that the “good advice” you’ve been following is now “not-so-good advice.” Again, come to expect change. Don’t let it depress you.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Developing and maintaining a baloney detection kit is one way of ensuring that you don’t waste yours!