Too Much Information?

How things have changed. Once information was a precious commodity, jealously guarded by the elite who deliberately withheld it from the masses in order to keep them in their place. Now information is everywhere, available to everybody, all of the time. While the democratization of information is undoubtedly a force for good, is there such a thing as too much information? And, who is verifying the information? Does something become true just because it has been written?

No issue has been more affected by the explosion of information than health. A 2009 study reported that 61 percent of all Americans currently look online for health information, a figure up from 25 percent in the year 2000. More and more patients are going to their doctors having already researched their symptoms on the Internet, and already convinced of their own diagnosis. What is more, doctors are also increasingly turning to the Internet, with nearly half of doctors reporting using the notoriously inaccurate Wikipedia as a source of medical information. Interestingly, despite their enthusiasm for Wikipedia as a source of information, around only 10% of the physicians surveyed actually created new posts or editing existing entries, which is surprising when you consider that these are the very people best qualified for the task.

So, just how reliable is all this information? A study from The Annals of Pharmacotherapy compared drug information from Wikipedia with the Medscape Drug Reference (MDR), the largest online drug reference designed for practicing physicians and reviewed by pharmacists. Researchers found that Wikipedia was able to answer less than half the drug information questions answered by MDR (40.0% vs. 82.5%), Wikipedia was rated 0% for information on dosing, compared with 90% for MDR, and answers on Wikipedia were 76.0% complete, compared with 95.5% complete on MDR. Errors of omission were also much higher on Wikipedia (48 in total) than MDR (just 14).

As well as the danger of inaccurate information on Wikipedia, there is some evidence that pharmaceutical companies have intentionally tried to delete or modify Wikipedia entries that have mentioned adverse effects associated with their drugs.

The irony is, that as the amount of information available grows, and people try to find ways to pick the reliable sources from the rest, it is the ‘old fashioned’ media that may ultimately provide the path through this minefield. As people are burnt by unreliable information from unknown, or discredited, sources, they may begin to go back to the names they know and trust. The traditional newspapers and broadcasting networks may yet benefit from the this age of information, particularly in the critical area of healthcare.


Clauson, K., Polen, H., Boulos, M., & Dzenowagis, J. (2008). Scope, Completeness, and Accuracy of Drug Information in Wikipedia Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 42 (12), 1814-1821 DOI: 10.1345/aph.1L474

Manhattan Research Study. Taking the Pulse. 2009.

  • Are you kidding? The “old fashioned” media as a good source of information? LOL.

    Also, the fact that Wikipedia has misleading information doesn’t nullify its utility. You aren’t supposed to take any source of information at face value, not the medical text (although they are usually much more rigorous), not the old media, and not Wikipedia. You need to be able validate information on your own, media of any form just points you in a direction and if they can’t back up information with sources then it shouldn’t be believed. In order to use Wikipedia effectively you just need to look for sources and think critically, it might take some getting used to, but it’s easy enough.

    If there is a problem here it’s that people are actively discouraged from thinking critically, not media.

    • René

      I’d have loved to disagree with you, but i find myself bound by the true statements….bummer!

    • Chelee Bean

      Yep, valid point.

  • Once information was a precious commodity, jealously guarded by the elite who deliberately withheld it from the masses in order to keep them in their place.

    Information is simply a resource. By itself it isn’t of much use. Knowledge, on the other hand, is a valuable commodity and is the application of information through skill.

    You’re right that today more than ever, we as a society are inundated by information. The majority of people can’t efficiently filter all of this information to their benefit because they may lack specialized education, skill, or both to interpret this over-abundance of info. This is why WebMD and its ilk will never replace a good old physician or pharmacist.

    By the way, this doesn’t mean that the “elite” are jealously “withholding” knowledge from the public. After all, if everyone understood medicine perfectly we’d all be medical professionals with Harvard degrees.

  • Christopher Ak.

    I couldn’t agree more with MetaQualia’s comment. The new elite will not be the people with access to the information, but the people who know how to evaluate it and make up their own minds about it. Corporations have known this since TV came along and consistently provide sources of ‘trusted’ information, so that you don’t need to look for yourself. The first thing you need to learn when you are faced with the myriad Google search results is how to sift through all that chaos and make up your own mind.

    By the way, everyone knows most doctors get paid to promote a particular pharmaceutical company’s products. In my mind, it’s not enough reason not to trust their judgment, but I understand why someone would like to look for a second opinion elsewhere. In addition, not all doctors are good doctors.

    When my unborn son’s ultrasound showed an ‘abnormally’ large skull, our doctor got us worried. We had to wait for an agonizing weekend, until we could go to a medical center with better equipment and specialists. Well, I just wouldn’t have it! I went online, found three different research papers that disputed the ‘normal’ ranges for the particular measurement and I was convinced that there was nothing wrong. On the day we were to see the specialist, I presented my findings to our doctor and her scorn was unparalleled: ‘ Bah! The internet!’. I was proven correct, of course and had to switch doctors in my wife’s last trimester. Her reaction would be understandable, if she could correctly evaluate my critical thinking skills and my ability to understand paper abstracts. But you can see my point.

  • Looks like it’s time to put the MDR on line doesn’t it?

  • Anonymous

    I know that everyone should critically evaluate everything they read, but the fact is that most people (doctors included) don’t. If they are going to take the information given at face value, I would rather it came from a reputable, referencable source (preferably peer-reviewed) than a quick keyword seach in Wikipedia.

    When I spoke of the ‘elite’ withholding information from the masses, I was speaking from an historical perspective – for example, the nobility discouraging the peasants from learning to read so they would not be in a position to challenge the status quo. My point was simply that historically information has been confined to a select few, and now it is available on an massive scale to everyone.

    And, yes, I do think that on the whole the ‘old fashioned’ media are a more reliable source of information than unaccountable internet sites. Traditional news corporations have experienced journalists, quality control procedures, accountability structures and a vested interest in maintaining their audience’s trust. I know that they are far from perfect, but I would rather base my own opinion on this than on anonymous bloggers (myself included) writing from their spare room.

  • Christopher Ak.

    My, oh my… This last comment borders on the naive. If “the ‘old fashioned’ media are a more reliable source of information than unaccountable internet sites”, then how do you explain the whole “Weapons Of Mass Destruction in Iraq” fiasco? How about that old “Serbs are evil” propaganda. Traditional mass media are trapped in a vicious circle of interests between journalists, publishers, corporations and politicians. In many cases, the roles are not even distinguishable.

    I’ll rather we all had to learn how to deal with a wide, unstructured, readily available chaos of opinions, than settle for a single, ‘expert’ view.

    So, I agree that most people lack the required critical thinking skills to realize that MDR is far more accurate than any site they might stumble upon, but the issue is how they can learn to make that distinction by themselves. Not that easy, is it?

  • Some bloggers are actually commentators with considerable expertise. Mainstream Media is often just journalists quoting others opinions however ill-informed (eg. climate change denialists).

    Of course there are bloggers and bloggers but there’s also The Times and The National Enquirer.

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  • Man is by far the most curious living creature on Earth. The thirst for knowledge is never quenched. People are unsatisfied with theories and not knowing the truth is like an addiction. In this age of computers, information is at anyone’s fingertips through the worldwide web. I think that the internet is a convenient and a powerful tool in getting all sorts of information. However, the question lies in how one uses the information is what makes each of us different. So bottom line is, information can be good if used in the right sense but can be harmful if used in the wrong way.

  • Man is by far the most curious living creature on Earth

    Goes both ways

  • Michele

    But my argument with this article would have to be, the more available sources to choose from, the better. Otherwise, we all have to learn latin or study medicine ourselves–which is actually not a half-bad idea. I’ve found I have to be fully vested in my own health issues to even know what questions to ask my doctor, or these questions are never answered. My opinion of doctors is not great. They only know what they’ve been taught by people that support pharmaceuticals and many don’t care to learn a naturalistic, holistic approach.
    So not “less is best” but “more gives more options” approach is my theory. I’m keeping my options open. Papers quote papers abundantly. Something NEW is actually NEWS.

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Rachel Danks, PhD

Rachel Danks, PhD, is a freelance medical writer and editor with over 12 years of experience in the field. She has written and edited numerous academic papers, and is experienced in preparing marketing materials, educational resources and regulatory documents. Her clients include medical education groups, advertising agencies, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions.

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