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Monday, August 18, 2008

Be Smart, Be Skeptical

The internet is a wonderful and empowering tool for us in this modern age. I am very grateful that it was available to me as a source of knowledge when I first decided to learn about diabetes. There is no way I would have been able to educate myself in the same way from courses, libraries and local support groups. Apart from the time involved, I simply would not have had the motivation to go out and find all of those sources. The internet made it simple and easy. However, the net also has it’s dangers. All of us realise that there is a lot of nonsense on the web and that we must filter the good from the bad. However, sometimes that becomes more difficult when we are reading "real people" on support forums.

On medical support forums there is a tendency to accept all new people as genuine. When someone arrives telling their story, or seeking help, our natural reaction is to believe them and offer our support and assistance or accept their story of success or woe.

Over a few years of wandering the web and the net, reading and posting on medically-oriented groups, I have found that cyber-space has a population of fringe-dwellers; kooks and fanatics who have discovered their divine purpose in life is to convert us to their own beliefs. That belief can be a cure for all our ills with herbal potions or vegan diets or magnetic rings or even stranger gizmos; or the one true religion; or the dangers of ingesting everything from artificial sweeteners to drinking water to eating meat.

Often they are easy to pick. The most common are dupes of snake-oil salesmen; either trying to convince others to reassure their own wavering beliefs, or sucked into yet another multi-level-marketing scheme for yet another wonderful cure. As the FCA warns us, Be Smart, Be Skeptical (click on any link after you've read the opening page). However, sometimes they are more cunning or devious, using search engines to alert them whenever key words appear on the net. For example, if you post a message to your favourite web forum with "aspartame" or "stevia" in the title or text you have a pretty good chance of getting a response quickly telling you of the terrible dangers of the first or the wonderful benefits of the latter. Usually from someone who has never posted to your forum before.

Similarly, if you include "PCRM" or "PETA" or "Vegan" or "Dr Neil Barnard" or "McDougal" in your title or text you can almost guarantee that a new person will arrive, usually in a separate thread, giving a glowing report of the benefits of a Vegan diet. They may remain for a week or two, then they disappear forever. Until the next time those words are used and another new person appears. Almost certainly the person posting is a figment of the author’s imagination, created to spread the word.

I have used the anti-aspartame and PCRM kooks as examples, but there are many others.

There is so much of value we can learn from the net, but always treat free medical advice as worth the price you paid for it until you have checked it with your doctor. For all other advice on the web use your common sense and logic.

Be smart, be skeptical.

Cheers, Alan