Last month my cardiologist put me on a beta blocker to lower my blood pressure and asked me to take daily readings with the little Chinese-made monitor I keep on my desk. After a week, I was alarmed to see that the readings were going higher.
“Of course, they are,” said my wife. “You’re eating far too much of that salty bacon you make from your pigs.” Calls came in from my daughters. “You shouldn’t be having that scotch before dinner,” they scolded. My sons told me to sit down, or better still, lie down. I felt like a sinking ship and began throwing freight overboard to see if I could improve the readings. No bacon, no chips, no booze, no lifting feed bags, no stressful conversations with my editors. By the second week the monitor was showing 175 over 100 so I called my GP, who sat me down and took ve readings which were all 120 over 80 … completely normal.
“The medication is doing exactly what it should,” he said. “I think you might try some new batteries in your monitor.”
It was a blunt reminder how careful we must be not to come to conclusions based on crappy information. This is very difficult when every newspaper in the land, every Twitter feed and every Facebook page is shouting at us to do just that. I mean, how can that many people be right about so many things?
The New York Times told us a year ago that workers in the service industry and health care were quitting their jobs in “droves.” That seemed correct to me because three of my four children have quit their service industry jobs during the pandemic to start their own businesses. Three out of four would qualify as ‘droves’ to me, because I could see it happening with my own eyes. But then a Globe and Mail article came out insisting that mass quitting is a myth and is not happening here in Canada.
Both newspapers were making educated guesses based on their reading of monthly job statistics and they came to opposite opinions about the larger trend. The second article couldn’t appear without the first because it relied on the, by now, widely accepted ‘fact’ of mass quitting to argue that no such thing was happening in Canada. Both articles were designed to get eyes on the page and prompt a reaction. If writers for the media don’t produce ‘hits’ or ‘likes’ these days, they don’t stay in the mainstream very long.
My cardiologist does not run his practice based on the hits and likes he receives on RateMDs. He reads peer-reviewed studies, visits with colleagues and relies on his forty years of experience staring at graphs and charts and asking detailed questions of his patients. He talks as though he is still quite mystified by the heart muscle and well he should be because, after all, the heart is a positive displacement diaphragm pump made of two pounds of hamburger. Anyone who can explain that miracle might be able to solve a few other mysteries like how a bumblebee can get airborne or why a bicycle stays upright.
Watching my doctor in action reminds me that all good science is founded on three principles: curiosity, doubt and caution. When I hear someone talk with absolute certainty about what the truth is, how the world works and what is sure to happen, my red flags go up instantly and I stop listening. On the other hand, when I hear an expert talk with humility and wonder, it inspires immediate confidence and trust.
There is an old saying in farming that there is no point keeping a dog and barking yourself. It is not just an argument for relying on experts. It is a reminder of the need for caution when tackling something outside your skill set, like the repair of propane appliances, tinkering with three-phase electrical panels or roofing. We farmers may pride ourselves on our independence and resourcefulness, but pride often goeth before a fall… in my case, three separate falls that required enough titanium implants to set off the alarm while I’m going out the door at Canadian Tire.
The scientific method is just farmer thinking codified and institutionalized. The farmer who lasts more than one season never suffers from the feeling that he knows everything. He quickly learns to be wary of the warm feeling that maybe he’s finally got the hang of this occupation, because that is the precise moment when some bug or fungus pops up and chews those careful spreadsheet calculations to shreds.
Being spectacularly wrong may be humiliating but it also helps teach humility, which the ancients assured us is the first step on the path to true enlightenment.