Arguably, the biggest challenge we face in sharing our science and having an impact in our communities is the lack of trust in credible sources. To tackle this problem, continuing to simple share evidence isn’t enough; we need to understand the root cause.
Why is it that some people are willing to accept misinformation over the evidence produced by experts?
As I was thinking back recently to my own path through university, a particular event stands out that highlights one possible cause.
Figuring out your path post-high school is rarely simple - at least, it wasn’t for me. In early 2000, I had already switched degree programs for the following year several times: from the concurrent BA/BSc program I started at UNB, to a BSc in organic chemistry, to a BA in psychology and French. While I felt comfortable with the psychology/French combo, I was still struggling to define the shape of my future path.
It was around this time - a few weeks following the end of our first year of university - that a friend and I weaselled our way into a professional nursing conference at UNB’s Aitken Centre. See, we needed to be there: the keynote address was by Dr. Hunter Adams, also known as Patch Adams. We had both seen the movie in the last year, and now the inspiration for the film was coming.
While I don’t remember the specific words he shared with us that day, I do remember the advocacy that he passionately expressed. Recognizing the diminishing humanity of the system, and the structures it created and imposed on its people, he called for a radical new approach to healthcare - a message that he continues to share to this day. The movie completely ignores the activism central to his work, choosing instead to focus on the more box-office friendly humorous aspects of his service delivery (and indeed, he still does clowning tours to other countries).
I wanted this for myself, and I wanted to be a part of this for others. So when I saw a recruitment advertisement for a Canadian naturopathy school soon after the event, I gave it more than a passing thought.
*Insert record scratch.*
(Okay, remember the part where I said I was struggling with defining my path forward? Plus, it was the millennium; we listened to Prozzak and wore glitter unironically for heaven’s sake.)
I didn’t get far with this train of thought, but when I think of our current challenges to share evidence and have impact with strong evidence, I recalled this brief sojourn into the world of alternative “medicine”. The reasons “why” I explored this option are more telling about my - and perhaps others - needs for our healthcare system, than the “why not”. For me, I was drawn to the school’s and the field of study’s messages of human connection: treating people as a whole rather, than an isolated problematic part.
So it’s easy to see how someone else would equally be attracted to explore its “treatments”. We want healthcare interactions where we are seen and heard as a person, not reduced to an individual piece of us in isolation. We want meaningful connection; a care relationship that addresses fears and anxieties.
If we are going to successfully share and implement good evidence now, we need to acknowledge what others are doing right, regardless of the validity of the content. And where modern western medicine and its systems of delivery have overall downplayed or ignored this essential need, alternative practices easily filled this void, despite being rooted in dubious belief and spurious claims of efficacy. They do a better job at embracing us as people, and not patients with a singular problem.
Personal blog for Bryn Robinson, PhD. All opinions are my own.