As we keep hearing, we live in an age of information overload. We try to keep up, but it is mostly sound bites and distillations of abridged versions of secondhand reports of some kind of really really serious scientific research somewhere. We quote the report and the findings as well as we can remember it from the magazine or newspaper that distilled it for us. We want to be up to date and we want to absorb what is important.
The problem is, as we know, “findings” are a lot more complicated than that. Studies are reported, retracted, altered, and abridged. Even very solid research is difficult to replicate over time, and findings we thought were solid turn out to be questionable. We turn to the experts to tell us what to think about complex issues.
It is important to get expert opinion, but it is also important to respect our own values, views, and common sense. Taking care of ourselves and the people we care about is our own responsibility and the data we gather to inform those caregiving choices cannot provide the ultimate answers. We still need to sift through it, think about it, and come to our own conclusions.
It has often been the case in the past that the most widely accepted views turn out to be wrong-headed. We have to be open not only to the accepted views, but to the dissenting voices. Should we take vitamin E? At first it was yes. Then it was no. Then it was maybe.
When we think about human behavior the situation becomes even more complex. Understanding and interrupting self destructive behaviors such as addictions, alcoholism, and eating disorders are evolving practices and require careful, thoughtful consideration. The more subtle forms of unhappiness can be even more elusive targets of investigation.
When an expert gives an opinion, it is his or her responsibility to report on what he or she knows from education, ongoing study, and experience in the field. When that expert expresses an unalterable certainty, however, it may be necessary to step back and think it over. We cannot abdicate our responsibility for our decisions however much someone else wants to take over and however much we want to be relieved of the responsibility for our choices.