In my previous blog, I shared five lessons about the way we practice medicine, which I believe were highlighted by the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would like to share five more COVID-19-inspired reflections, but this time it’s about the way we, as physicians, debate our medical opinions and the thought processes through which we form these opinions to begin with. While these thoughts came as a result of following scientific debates on social media, I believe they apply to all sorts of debates in other contexts as well:
- Opinions are not principles. Principles are ethical codes we live by and cherish for our whole life. Opinions, on the other hand, are impressions and ideas that we make as we go, based on information that is available to us (with some emotional influences as well). That being said, while it might take a major life event for someone to change their principles; opinions can, and should, change quite often. There is nothing wrong about changing one’s opinion based on new information or on changing circumstances. In fact, this only reflects a healthy and dynamic thought process. Keeping that in mind makes it easy for us to admit when we’re wrong and to accept that others are allowed to change their position without being accused of hypocrisy.
- Debate is not an aim. With the urge to prove our point and support our convictions, we often forget the real aim of any debate; reaching the truth through exploring alternative interpretations. Social media has opened unprecedented venues for endless debate, and the field of medicine has remarkably caught up to this. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget that proving our point often gets in the way of actually finding the truth.
- Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As physicians, we adopt a scientific thought process. We always strive to find evidence to support any medical claim. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that just because something is not supported by evidence, it does not necessarily mean that it’s not true. It often only means that “we don’t know”. In the midst of scientific debates, we tend to forget this simple fact and start to proclaim that a certain medical intervention doesn’t work simply because it hasn’t yet been assessed by clinical trials. The more accurate way to address this is to say that we don’t know if it works or not, otherwise, we would be committing the same error we were criticizing in the first place.
- Bias is vulnerability. Bias and prejudice are human flaws. And we are all human. We tend to be a lot less rigorous in our scrutiny of the methodology and the validity of the results of an article (scientific or otherwise) when the findings are consistent with our own bias. We tend to drop our most important defense mechanism against gullibility—our ability to think systematically and to critically appraise the evidence. This becomes particularly obvious on social media where we are quick to enthusiastically share (and sometimes praise) studies that support our viewpoints, without properly examining the content. Eliminating this bias requires a conscious effort when assessing data that align with our opinions to be even more careful.
- We know very little, so be humble. Every day, nature shows us that no matter how much our medical knowledge increases over time, we still know relatively very little about the world we live in. COVID-19 is just another reminder. It’s true that some of us know more than others, but in the big scheme of things, none of us is in a position to brag or be condescending. So no matter whom or what we’re debating, let’s remember to be humble, be kind, and be respectful.
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Amr F. Barakat is a Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pittsburgh, PA. He is invested in academic electrophysiology and clinical outcomes research, and is a believer in the role of social media in medical education (tweets @AmrFBarakat). He volunteers for the AHA FIT & Early Career Blogging Program.