Emotion and Information
by Barbara Quint
I had two interesting conversations the other day, both with strangers. Let me rephrase that. Both with colleagues I hadn’t met before. The first was with Jeff Cutler, a veteran of the online information industry now serving as chief revenue officer with Answers.com. The second was with a top journalist in the health section of a leading national news magazine. (And how she found her way to me is probably a testimony to the memory of veterans in that magazine’s library.)
Actually, I was interviewing Cutler for a story on Answers.com supplying background information and services to NYTimes.com [NewsBreak: “Answers.com Buttresses NYTimes.com Reference Content,” http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb060925-2.shtml]. In the course of the interview, Cutler wanted me to try out Answers.com with some topic of interest to me. He suggested putting in the name of my home town. When I entered “Santa Monica,” the system responded with a lovely display of relevant information on the city. (Did you know that it is the birthplace of Shirley Temple, Robert Redford, and Sean Penn?)
But more interesting was a tiny question the system inserted before its yard-long display of information on the city; to wit: “Or did you mean: Santa Monica (song)” Song?!? What song?! You mean my home town has some sort of anthem and I’ve never even heard of it? Wonder what it’s like. If it dates back to the early days, it’s probably liquid treacle, filled with references to moonlight shining through the palm trees against the blue Pacific.
Not exactly. Instead, the entry reads:
Santa Monica is a rock song by the band Everclear. This song is about Everclear’s lead singer, Art Alexakis attempting to commit suicide when he was living in Santa Monica, California.
Francis Scott Key, eat your heart out! You know, I think I’ll just dash over to iTunes or one of the other music sites anyway and see if I can get a copy of that tune. A review on Amazon describes it as “swaggering, strangely euphoric ‘Santa Monica,’ itself one of the finer rock singles of [the] ’90’s.”
Within the hour of that neat, complete, question/answer experience, I got a call from the national news magazine journalist to discuss the whole issue of bad or inadequate medical information on the Internet. Having made health issues her beat, the journalist knows the good sites probably better than I. We both know that the Web carries a massive flow of very respectable information for both health professionals and patients. I’ll admit, we did discuss whether the National Library of Medicine or the National Institutes of Health should have taken (and should still take) a more coherent, assertive strategy toward serving the information needs of the laity that pays their salaries. Ahem.
Nonetheless, there was no getting away from the fact that medical information belonged to a category of information that would always be troublesome; that would never free itself from complexity; and that would always find reliable information battling with misleading, misinformed, and often downright fraudulent “facts.” Other subject areas share the same environmental difficulties: financial and investment information, controversial political issues, and, of course, the old traditionals, religion and art.
What distinguishes these areas from other subject areas? The Signers’ Factors is my guess. Remember the Declaration of Independence? A glorious statement of political principles followed by a list of complaints longer than a slumlord’s arm. But at the end, in the section where they finally said what they intended to do about all this — where push came to shove — their final words were “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” There they are! The three factors that make an issue real, that turn an inquiry into a controversy, that identify what people have at stake if the information they find fails them. Our Lives (medical and health information), Our Fortunes (money and the lifestyles it can buy), and Our Sacred Honor (reputation and the lifestyles its diminution can destroy).
When emotion enters into the information cycle, as it always does when the seekers are also stakeholders, it brings a host of problems. Oddly enough, it also brings a host of solutions, but not always enough to solve the problems. When information has consequence attached, it usually means an abundance of sources, but it also usually means many of the sources will have strong biases. It means a heavy investment in generating information by many parties, but the money usually draws flies and then the maggots who don’t care about anything but the money. Users may seek information more diligently, but the fear and apprehension or desperate hopes that can underlie end-user medical searches can skew diligence into the pursuit of information until the searcher finally finds whatever they want to hear. (And here come those maggots again.)
Of course, the journalist and I didn’t manage to solve this universal problem in one conversation, but I did share one insight I had gained from the limited medical searching I have done in the past. When I asked my clients how the information I had found for them worked out, one response occurred over and over again – and from people with different levels of education and income level and different final medical outcomes. Having the search results in hand improved the dialogue between patients and health professionals. The patients or their loved ones had an opportunity to prepare themselves for mature discussions and the doctors or nurses felt more comfortable with someone who knew at least some of their jargon and who seemed to be coping well.
However, I did also hear a few cases of health professionals who seemed irritated or resentful of this intrusion into their space. Well, they’ll learn. The important thing is for the health professionals to not get too emotional about this issue. How about a nice cup of tea, while we all do a bit of research on how to get patients away from the bad information and into the good?
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.