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Purveyor of Idle Observation

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By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Cyberchondria, the practice of leaping to dire conclusions while researching health matters online, is the subject of a recent study proviled in the New York Times’ Microsoft Examines Causes of ‘Cyberchondria’. Markoff elegantly sums it up thus:

If that headache plaguing you this morning led you first to a Web search and then to the conclusion that you must have a brain tumor, you may instead be suffering from cyberchondria.

Sites like WebMD contain the standard disclaimers one might expect. I gave the symptom checker a quick test drive and could see how easy it would be for someone to reach dire conclusions in the absence of information on likelihood of risks.

Consider the following scenario input at the Mayo Clinic’s symptom checker

Input under “Sore Throat – Adult” with (1) chills (2) cough (3) Difficult or painful swallowing and (4) raspy breathing yielded Epiglottitis as the first result:

Epiglottitis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the epiglottis — a small cartilage “lid” that covers your windpipe — swells, blocking the flow of air into your lungs.

Gee, I can’t imagine how I’d leap to dire conclusions from reading that. A fundamental assumption of the internet is that more information is a good thing. Here’s an instance where it’s not necessarily true. Less clear is what would solve this issue – less information or more.

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Category: science


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