Exaggerating freakiness

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

Two stories:

#1: “I went to see the doctor because my foot hurt that morning. At first the doctor didn’t want to do any tests, but I insisted on xrays and a CT scan and an MRI and a bone scan and blood tests. It turns out that I have cancer!”

#2: “My foot hurt when I woke up. I’m not sure why. Now it feels better.”

Which one of these are you more likely to read about on the internet?

Things happen every day, and most of them are routine and boring. Your child has a sore throat, then he gets better. You eat a donut, and then you don’t get pregnant. You read about a celebrity in the newspaper, then later that day you don’t meet a long-lost friend who has the same first name. Thousands, maybe millions of things happen to each of us each week that don’t seem particularly strange or interesting or ironic or coincidental.

When these ordinary things happen, we don’t tell all of our friends. We’d be pretty boring if we told stories like this:

You won’t believe it! I went to Starbucks and I ordered my usual Venti-1/2-caff-double-foam-smack-my-behind-double-Splenda, then I drank it!

But if something like this happens, you’re going to talk about it for months:

The foam in my coffee cup was shaped exactly like the face of Mother Theresa, and as soon as I finished drinking it I found a $100 bill! And our Shawn was accepted to Harvard, he’s barely out of diapers!

OK, that’s fine, human nature. The stories that are weird and interesting and freakish are the ones we hear about. But something has changed, and it’s drastically exaggerated the impact of weird stories.

Days gone by, if your neighbor’s child was born with a tail, he’d know, you’d know, and the other 200 or so people in your village would know. Maybe by the 1950’s, there were enough televisions so that “news of the weird” traveled further.

But now: the freak stories are blogged and reported and turn into mass emails, and everyone hears about everything. Not everything, really– just everything freakish and weird and unexpected. The normal stuff slides under the radar, even tough there are zillions more normal things than freakish things. But everything freakish, that’s what the internet exaggerates. The stories go around in circles, and never die.

There’s no way of knowing if any of these stories are even true. That doesn’t matter, of course– it’s not “truthiness” that keeps stories circulating, it’s impact and color and weirdness.

In 1998 a researcher in Great Britain published a single study involving 12 children, claiming indirectly that their autism was caused by the MMR vaccine. It doesn’t matter that this single study was never confirmed, or that dozens of studies involving millions of children haven’t found any link, or that it turns out that this researcher probably faked his data, took advantage of the children involved, and was being paid by lawyers who were trying to extort money from vaccine manufacturers.  The entire study has since been retracted, and the researcher fled to the United States, where he’s since been dismissed from his employer after British courts found him guilty of misconduct. None of this matters on the internet, because of the innate power of an unexpected and interesting story. It’s a power that has led in this case to the return of infectious diseases that we already had defeated.

It just isn’t very interesting to recall the millions of children who are vaccinated every day without any problems, or talk about the millions of children who don’t get pertussis, measels, or meningitis because they’re protected by immunizations. Maybe not interesting, but it’s true, and it’s good information that parents need to make the best decisions for their children.

So I’ll just keep writing about it.

Explore posts in the same categories: In the news, Medical problems

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2 Comments on “Exaggerating freakiness”

  1. Julie Kardos Says:

    Hey Roy,
    I LOVED this article. I hadn’t looked at your site in a couple of weeks and wanted to see what you were up to. I just wrote about the Wakefield retraction on our site and then read your article: funny that we had the same thought at the same time. I swear I hadn’t checked out your site first!!
    Keep up the writing–it’s great!

    Take care,


  2. Stephen Colbert Says:

    Kudos for an excellent reference of “Truthiness”. I need to get back to my Grande full-caf-light-on-the-foam-it-makes-me-burp-kiss-my-Tuchas-quadruple Sweet’n’Low w/ whip – to wash down the Dorritos, of course.


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