During a casual scroll through social media, you often hear the voice of a friend and fellow warning, “Do not engage!”
Generally speaking, this is almost always the correct advice.
The rise of various social media platforms, the ability to rapidly share information and disinformation, the growing culture of doing one’s own “research,” and the apparent difficulty in separating reputable from non-reputable sources online has created the perfect storm.
In medicine, half-truths, and untruths can be incredibly dangerous.
While you are on social media as moms, dads, daughters, sons, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, friends, and neighbors -sharing milestones and soliciting advice about daycares, home décor, good eats, and the like- you have also taken an oath to do no harm.
Your identity as physicians is inextricably linked to your identity as human beings.
And while the line is clear in the office or hospital setting, where your patients come to you for your guidance and expertise, it is notably blurred outside of this environment.
From doting grandmothers sharing photos of adorable infants in unsafe sleep positions to the dangerous recommendation of a honey-infused pacifier for colic in a local mom’s group, the posts, comments, and documented behaviors that make your stomachs churn are not new.
What is new since the COVID-19 pandemic is the sheer volume of fiction dressed up to look official and the disregard for evidence-based guidelines resulting in serious public health consequences.
When physicians and scientists are vocal in situations such as these, the perception is often that they have over-stepped and the recipient’s gut reaction is “mind your own business.”
For most of you, the impetus to push back against the deluge of misinformation is a matter of truth over fiction and protecting your family, friends, and neighbors as well as yours.
In a culture of “you have your opinion and I have mine” and “I have done my own research” as a rebuttal to undeniable facts or data, what is lost is exactly what astrophysicist Ethan Siegel eloquently outlines in his article,
You must not “do your own research” when it comes to science.
The beauty of a scientific fact is that it cannot be disputed. It simply is. To disagree with or reject it is to reject truth.
At the end of the day, your approach has been this:
You will give evidence-based guidance when asked and limit unsolicited advice to times when there is risk of imminent danger.
Still, that approach leaves plenty of scenarios in the gray zone:
A child being placed in a forward-facing car seat when his age and size dictate that he should be rear-facing, an Instagram influencer advertising an unsafe sleep product for a newborn, a Facebook friend sharing an anti-vaccination website fraught with inaccuracies and countless other examples.
To a physician like you, what flashes before your eyes when you see these posts and observe these behaviors is preventable illness and injury.
You think of the patients you have personally known, who have suffered or succumbed.
And so the question remains, in this era of never-ending disinformation, to engage or not to engage?