Just a couple thoughts I've been pondering the last few days in relation to various health discussions and debates.
Before bringing a discussion to the table of health topics, I have confidence we could all agree that grasping key elements of information is imperative. Fundamental background information is essential to understanding and coherently discussing health issues--or any issue for that matter. For example, if we want to discuss the effects of mercury on the human body, we must first become familiar with mercury itself. We have to define our terminology. We need to ask several basic questions including things like: What is mercury? What forms exist? Where are they found? How are the existing forms different? How are they similar? Does mercury provide any essential functions in biology? How is mercury absorbed and excreted by the body? What are the levels at which each individual form can become toxic to human cells? Which humans cells? How does age, body size, illness impact susceptibility to toxicity? By what means is toxicity determined? What are signs and symptoms toxicity for each individual form?, etc.
These types of questions are the basic tenants of scientific inquiry. There is nothing lofty about scientific inquiry. The students of scientific inquiry are intimately aware of the strengths and certainly limitations of the process itself. They do not worship the process, they see it for what it is--a tool, not the alpha and omega. One does not have to be a so-called expert to become familiar with fundamental definitions--accurate information is readily accessible in this modern era. Important details that affect the meaning are lost when we do not take the time to understand the foundations of our topics. The common result is many well-meaning, highly motivated people discussing issues that truly we do not understand, not in any way because we are incapable of understanding, but because we have not taken the time to teach ourselves the basics. Skipping the step of gathering background information can potentially lead to many erroneous conclusions because there is little to no contextual understanding. Taking out background information actually changes the meaning of the overall definitions.
There is also an issue of discussions surrounding theory versus practice. The above questions on mercury largely surround theory though they also have clinical implications. Practice is different. What seems evident in theory may not play out the same way in practice. This is largely because humans are not predictable and no two people are exactly alike nor respond exactly the same to substances, interventions, etc. Though direct clinical experience (anecdotal) does not always lead a given professional to accurate conclusions or practices, if you want to know how things have played out in "real life" so to speak, ask those who have observed it first-hand. Whether or not we agree with the methods, conclusions or health philosophy of the individual professional, it should not discount that he or she still has direct experience, often experience that is entirely different from our own. It is easy for us to discuss issues as people who have read a lot about them. We feel we have fully informed ourselves of the how and why and why not, but until we can appreciate how these issues play out practically in real life, and interact with other factors, we truly don't understand. For example, we can discuss the risks versus benefits of epidural anesthesia during labor based on clinical studies, conceptual and written information or from reports from friends or family. But risks versus benefits of epidural anesthesia is highly individual. Gathering information from other practitioners on their own observations can help give us another piece to the contextual puzzle. Not one of us knows everything about anything and we should share and gather information with others. Collecting, studying, summarizing and articulating and applying information has many steps and each step influences the next.
My challenge: before we go into a discussion or debate surrounding health issues, or educate our neighbor on "the facts," we need to do our homework. The point here is not so that we fill our brain with mere facts, words and knowledge, but so that we can gain understanding. Knowledge and understanding do not go hand in hand. Understanding takes time, maturity, insight, pondering, quiet thinking, and so on. Anyone can hear and repeat knowledge, it doesn't make them wise or experienced. Sometimes we get lazy or we think if we say something loud enough and with enough force, it doesn't matter whether we actually understand it. Let us not miss important pieces to the puzzle simply because we don't think it matters. Background and context always matter.