The benefits of being informed

October 5, 2008

I know being informed is great. I know too that journalism is frequently invoked as the vehicle through which societies keep that promise, but what difference do informed individuals make to public policy choices?

In pondering an answer to that question, I was wondering if anyone had studied the results of doctors and their choice of care. Would doctors, as informed recipients of medical treatment, end up getting better care?

A sociologist called Herbert Bynder did a study “Doctors as Patients“, back in the late 1960s. As Time reported:

It stands to reason that a doctor should show greater expertise than the average man in picking a doctor for himself. Not so, says Sociologist Herbert Bynder of the University of Colorado. Doctors like to think that they choose their own physicians on the basis of qualifications and competence, but in most cases they are deceiving themselves.

Of course being “informed” doesn’t change the nature of one’s illness, or necessarily the range of treatments on offer.

Then there’s the passive nature of “being informed.” As Kevin Kelly has written about artificial intelligence, there are a lot of people who think that thinking about stuff is sufficient for progress to occur:

Thinkism is not enough. Without conducting experiments, building prototypes, having failures, and engaging in reality, an intelligence can have thoughts but not results. It cannot think its way to solving the world’s problems.

Being informed, and expertise, do not interact passively with choices society just presents to us. The Bill Kovach model of journalism as a “discipline of verification” breaks down.

The doctor’s medical training, and the practice of medicine, create the framework from which his/her treatment choices are derived. Individual expertise brings little individual benefit. Do sick oncologists outlive their patients?

What does this mean for journalism? Only that the informing part of journalism doesn’t work by itself. Information needs to be connected to action and experiment. “Conversation” is not enough.

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