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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